Sometimes no matter how much a production has going in its favor, it simply doesn’t work for a reviewer, no matter the quality of the talent onstage. Diversionary Theatre’s World Premiere play Dooley is just such a production.
Playwright William di Canzio has chosen to tell the little-known story of gay American hero Dr. Tom Dooley as a surreal collage of dialog, music, dance, masks and puppets, an approach which proved too artsy (and at times too campy) to involve me dramatically or move me emotionally.
Dr. Tom Dooley’s brief but important life is certainly one worth dramatizing. A United States Navy physician, Dooley served briefly in Japan before being sent to the North Vietnamese port of Haiphong in 1954. His humanitarian work there among refugees prompted Dooley to write Deliver Us From Evil, the first of three inspirational books to become popular successes. Unbeknownst to the American public, however, Dooley was allegedly doing double duty overseas, serving not only as a physician but as a CIA operative as well. Then, only a year or two after his arrival in Asia, Dooley was forced to resign from the Navy for “participation in homosexual activities.” Not one to say uncle, even to Uncle Sam, Dooley chose to continue his humanitarian work in Laos before returning to the U.S. to be treated for malignant melanoma. Dr. Tom Dooley died of cancer in 1961 at the age of thirty-four, his legacy of humanitarianism living on even today in the United States Peace Corps, which President John F. Kennedy credited as being at least partly inspired by Dooley’s work. Dooley’s dismissal from the Armed Forces lives on today as well, in the significant numbers of gay and lesbian servicemen and women still forced to call short their service to their country.
Dooley the play gets high marks for its high intentions, Dr. Tom Dooley amply deserving of recognition as an unsung LGBT hero. For this reviewer at least, however, its execution failed to move or entertain me as I would have wished, despite a fine cast and a quite stunning design.
An opening sequence featuring a Southeast Asian dance-and-narration retelling of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice sets Dooley’s artsy tone from the get-go, followed by a sequence which has Tom chasing a monkey through the streets of Tokyo, the pursuit interrupting a posh bridge party in Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. A sailor twink approaches Tom with a medical problem which requires the young man to drop trousers and show off his privates. Tom’s cruising around the Ginza “like a movie star” in his red convertible attracts the ire of his commanding officer, who ships him off to the Philippines with a warning to “stay away from my son.” Tom’s hoity-toity mother breaks the fourth wall to tell us about five-year-old Tom’s habit of playing doctor with his dollies. Transferred to Vietnam, Tom meets a comely native boy named Khai who becomes his lover, their passion celebrated in an erotic dance/dream sequence. Before long Tom has been recruited as a CIA spy and dancers have returned for yet another choreographed sequence, this one acrobatic. Though Tom’s cross-cultural relationship with Khai proves a bumpy one, the American has only the Vietnamese cutie’s best interests at heart. When armed conflicts break out between North and South, Tom insists that Khai escape. “Get on that boat to Saigon,” he orders his young native lover, who has no choice but to obey. And we’re only about halfway through Act One.
As dramatic as Tom’s story is, the production’s stylized performances (bordering at times on gay camp) distanced me from the romance and drama intrinsic in Tom Dooley’s life. As beautiful as Dooley’s Michael Mizerany-choreographed dance sequences are, they ended up distancing me from the production as well.
That’s not to say that the cast (Robert Borzych as Tom, Shaun Tuazon as Khai and Thanatos, Terrill Miller as Agnes, Jesse Mackinnon as Lansdale and Lt. Brown, Allison Riley as Iris, Reed Willard as Chuck and Lt. Smith, Noah Longton as Jamie and Sailor, and Charlie Riendeau as Commanding Officer) don’t give committed performances. Borzych in particular brings charm and stage presence to Tom, though di Canzio’s script and Cynthia Stokes’ direction have him playing the character almost as if in a screwball comedy, a tone at odds with some deeply felt dramatic work by Borzych in the second act. The same can be said for Miller’s Agnes Dooley, directed as if a 1930s-style screwball society matron, though Miller too gets some heartfelt dramatic scenes later on. A mostly shirtless Tuazon gives a charming performance as Khai. Dancers Nicholas Strassburg and Jacinto Delgado do gorgeous work and are gorgeous to look at.
Design talent is topnotch, from Matt Scott’s versatile Asian-looking set to Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ bevy of 1950s/Asian/military costumes to David Medina’s properties. Michelle Caron’s lighting design is particularly vivid and varied and Blair Robert Nelson’s original score and sound design are both striking. Bret Young is production manager, Christopher Powell stage manager, and Rosina Reynolds dramaturge.
Dooley isn’t a bad show by any means, and some may absolutely love all the elements that I found off-putting. In the end, however, it just wasn’t my cup of green tea.
Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego.
May 15, 2011
Photos: Ken Jacques