| Chicago Reader


Immediate Theatre Company

Vietnam has proved to be probably the most humorless war since the Children's Crusade. No romantic musicals came out of this war--no Mister Roberts, no South Pacific. No Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis-Andrews Sisters movies were filmed at Fort Polk, and girls said yes to boys who said no ("Ain't no use in going home / Jody's got your girl and gone"). So it was hard to know what to expect from Exact Change, purporting to be a comedy about three Vietnam veterans who are partners in crime. Abbott and Costello meet Rambo?

Actually, that wasn't too far off the mark. Imagine "Who's on First?" with dialogue by Harold Pinter and played by the Bowery Boys, with sight gags lifted from the Three Stooges, the Muppets, and I tre zanni, and you'll get the flavor of the start of this play. Eddie, Ricky, and Richie, three overgrown delinquents who can't seem to do anything right (and who also happen to be Vietnam war veterans), have just bungled their latest money-making scheme; having kidnapped the boyfriend or husband of Ricky's ex-wife (it's hard to tell from the play's chaotic slapstick beginning) they quickly lost him at a tollbooth, and have repaired to a deserted warehouse in the Bronx to figure out what to do. (Inept criminals, to say the least, they asked the victim for toll money; he threw it on the floor of the getaway car and escaped while his captors scrambled for it.) Their latest failure is meant to demonstrate that these guys are all complete losers. Even their wounds are petty--Eddie has psoriasis, for God's sake. But somehow they're meant to be lovable in their idiocy. When Ricky and Richie come to blows over a woman, they fight like amateurs, with none of the efficiency of trained warriors. And though their fight is violent and brutal, the audience sit back and laugh, because by now they know that this is only a cartoon. Nobody's really going to get hurt.

A little more than halfway into this silliness, however, something strange happens: Eddie, having heretofore exhibited the IQ of a rock lobster, suddenly develops the eloquence of Ben Kingsley and recites a heart-rending soliloquy about seeing the Vietnam war memorial. The transformation in character is jarring this first time, since the play shifts back to slapstick immediately afterward (did I mention the keys locked in the stolen car?). But the second time--when Ricky dreams about the child he doesn't yet have--the incongruity is scarcely noticeable. By the time we see these three small, superfluous men huddled in the dark around a decrepit space heater, sharing fantasies about sex, violence, and the American Way of Life ("All you need is an idea and some luck," one character insists--is he Vladimir or Estragon?), we realize the tremendous courage and excruciating optimism these bunglers must have to keep the faith in a world where even the best-laid plans can go awry in so many absurd little ways.

The detail that these overage Dead End Kids are Vietnam veterans seems to have no more purpose than to give us an opportunity for a cheap cry after the cheap laugh. (As a plot device, Vietnam is beginning to replace the Great Depression as a quick-and-easy way to give every schlepp a heart of gold.) And the comic-book thinness of this script should have irritated the hell out of me (I'm a veteran myself, and I couldn't believe these three would ever have made it through Boy Scouts. What did they do in the service, I wondered. Too bad the playwright didn't wonder, too). But somehow the Immediate manages to pull it off, thanks in large part to the outstanding production values that have given this company its eight-year reputation for consistently high-quality theater and that save the day in this instance. Director Bradley Mott has managed to make smooth and almost seamless the transition from broad farce to sensitive (albeit superficial) social drama, and actor John Montana (who played another Viet vet in last season's Strange Snow) and artistic directors Jeff Ginsberg and Richard Wharton, working front-stage for a change, are to be commended for making their characters into believable human beings--given the cardboard dialogue and ludicrous New Jersey accents they have to work with. (Lenny Bruce once remarked that if Albert Einstein had talked with a southern accent, there'd have been no bomb; if William Westmoreland had come from Newark, there might not have been a Vietnam war.)

But there was a Vietnam war, and we've been reminded a lot lately that Kilroy's now counted as MIA. Jody's earning a six-digit salary, and if there's something about a man in a uniform, it's not sex appeal. Exact Change doesn't take us anywhere or tell us anything that all the other war stories missed, but it delivers laughs along the way, and that's something new.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.

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