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Olivia Birkelund, Anthony Veneziale,
and Eric Martin Brown in Servicemen
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
It's like watching a moody, old 1940s film play out live onstage. Stark lighting, big band music in the background, men in suits and women in hats. A beautiful couple, Gray and Cynthia, enter their spacious Upper East Side apartment and gaze out the window at a fantastic view of the city skyline at night. They're drunk, they're happy, they joke and dance and flirt. She's happy, he's gay.

And I don't mean the 1940s kind of gay. Evan Smith's new play Servicemen could (and no doubt repeatedly will be) described as a World War II era Will and Grace. In some ways it may be, as it explores the platonic but nonetheless passionate bond that these two friends share. But this is also a bigger story about love and war and learning that some things are worth fighting for.

Cynthia (or "Cyn," as she is not undeservedly called) is a wealthy woman whose cartographer husband is off to the war. She wiles away the lonely hours on the New York City homefront at parties, clubs, and bars with Gray as her constant cruising companion, not to mention the occasional sailor that she brings home for a nightcap. Gray occupies her guest room and lives in decadent luxury, a lifestyle of no work and all play. But this is not a sweet story of a young socialite and her charming gay companion; these two compete and bicker like the best of the silver screen duos, discarding witty lines and double entendres with speed and flair.

There's not much of a plot in Servicemen, but Smith's sharp dialogue and Sean Mathias' slick direction keep things moving along nicely as Gray (Eric Martin Brown) and Cyn (Olivia Birkelund) take on the town. After Gray successfully and legitimately manages to dodge the draft, they get over that brief scare and resume gliding through the night, smoking and drinking and seeking out conquests. They make frequent visits to a club where their friend Glenn (Steven Polito) sings--usually in drag--standards like "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do?" During their carousing, Gray and Cyn meet with a wholesome young sailor from Oklahoma named Si (Anthony Veneziale) whose inexperience leads him to take a one-night stand too seriously. Young Si ends up having a more profound impact on both of their lives than they ever could have imagined: Gray descends into sorrow when he realizes that he's never truly loved anyone, while Cyn's grief from her realization of who it is that she does love.

It's not uncommon these days for a director to take an old play and exploit its subtext to make it seem up-to-date and progressive. The works of Noël Coward have been targeted frequently of late, with their once-subtle sexuality now often played way over the top. But Smith offers something completely different. He has, today, written a period piece that at first shows us the most "scandalous" qualities of his central characters; she's a drunk and an adulteress, he's a gay mooch, they're both sexual predators. Yet their experiences with Si and with Cyn's neglected daughter Gloria (Heather Matarazzo) bring about a slow and difficult change as these characters begin to see the emptiness of their lives: Cyn's stinging barbs give way to heartfelt confessions, and Gray develops from a playboy to an unconventionally romantic hero.

It isn't too surprising when we find that there is an undercurrent of genuine love between Gray and Cyn, despite their bitter, Scotch-soaked exteriors. While that revelation may seem a little old-fashioned, it does work. Servicemen isn't without flaws: the arc of Cyn's character and the ending of the play aren't completely satisfying. But, by and large, this is a fine, original play with an appealing cast.

Some of the appeal might also be the dose of nostalgia offered by the production. Fans of the WWII era will enjoy the sentimental journey, helped along by the show's picture-perfect set design (Derek McLane), costumes (Catherine Zuber and Alejo Vietti), and lighting (Jeff Croiter). Fabian Obispo's sound design is also excellent, and there is a constant soundtrack of searing jazz and big band swing.

What makes Servicemen unique is that Smith has given us something that no one got to see back in the '40s: a hilarious, tearjerking, thoroughly enjoyable wartime romance in which gay characters are prominently featured. Furthermore, the author avoids falling into stereotypical traps. Instead, he gives us people like Glenn, a restrained and sensitive man who happens to be a drag queen, and Gray, a flawed hero who redeems his empty past with a grand gesture. Perhaps this dosen't mean as much as it should today, in a time when making the ultimate sacrifice for love and for country is often thought an antiquated notion. But for those who have an attachment to that old style and sensibility, Servicemen will seem like a wonderful old movie that never made it past the censors. Now's your chance to see it.

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