When Yale Repertory Theatre presented Christopher Durang's The Vietnamization of New Jersey in January 1977, it's safe to say its themes were synched to the times: The fall of Saigon was barely two years earlier. As the war-inspired upheavals of the 1960s began yielding even more upheavals in the '70s—the Equal Rights Amendment, President Carter's national "malaise," conservatism's rise—satirizing a mythical family stuck in a '50s mentality may well have seemed like some sociological swipe.
Thirty years later, the Alchemy Theatre Company is giving Vietnamization, one of Durang's earliest plays, its New York City debut. Robert Saxner, the company's producing artistic director, is directing, and when asked if it's at all curious that the play didn't transfer from Yale—or that it's now being revisited as the United States yet again socially churns during divisive war—he agrees. Yet, he cautions, that's not the same as saying that he sees the play as a particularly political vehicle.
"I'm sure a lot of people will make it a reference to Iraq and to administration policy, and that's certainly understandable," Saxner says. "If they take that away, that's great, and for me there's certainly involvement in those subjects. Yet it's more about the American family: how we treat each other and our belief systems, how that doesn't change. In other words, how it doesn't matter if it's Vietnam, Iraq, or whatever. The play says you can just fill in the blank in terms of what war we're talking about—that nothing is going to change until we as a society get a better understanding of ourselves."
Vietnamization concerns a mother, Ozzie Ann, and a father, Harry, living in Piscataway, N.J., in 1967. They await the return of their son David, a Vietnam veteran, who'll be bringing along Liat, his "native" wife, who turns out to be Irish. Amid dollops of cringe-worthy dialogue (Ozzie Ann frets over Liat's "teensy slanted eyes"), there's also Et, David's sex-on-the-brain brother, and Hazel, the super-sassy black maid. "It's really a look at a 1950s family who moved into the '60s and '70s, and how times have changed but they haven't," Saxner explains. "It's about how they're still making the same mistakes, how it all leads to insanity. That's what Durang's getting at: how America looks at itself—somewhat innocent, we're always the good guys—and how, when the '60s and '70s came around, things became more complex. Durang is holding up a mirror. Maybe that's what feels so relevant about the play."
Speaking between rehearsals, Saxner acknowledges there are competing impulses for him and for the actors: Do you play the absurd comedy sitting underneath the action, or do you simply play the play? "We touch upon [comedy] early in the play, but then at some level we have to try not to get pulled too far into it, because, at the end of the day, the actors also have to live a situation onstage. There's also a very tight rhythm to Durang's work. A lot of times I really want to make sure we talk about the deeper issues going on, so the actors get a sense of the whole, but sometimes that has to stay in the subconscious, too: We need to focus on moment-to-moment stuff to keep things tight. I think that as long as we do our job, the audience will get all that stuff and will also laugh at the same time—or maybe they'll wince, or both."
A graduate of the American Repertory Theatre's training program at Harvard, where he earned his MFA through the Moscow Art Theatre School, Saxner is not particularly dogmatic regarding how actors should approach their work. Yet if he professes no special interest in whether "someone wants to work via Practical Aesthetics or very Stanislavsky," Saxner does believe strongly in an "action-based" approach: "Call it objective, intention, or action, I believe in playing the action. I believe it's really important—and maybe more so—that actors know each playwright has certain rhythms and tempos. Many times I fear actors understand what they're saying, but if they're not playing the action, the text will be boring, that on some level it'll fall out of sync with the playwright's rhythms."
In his research, Saxner says he found himself going well beyond "Ozzie & Harriet or Hazel to absurdists, philosophers, existentialism—all things mentioned, if very briefly, in Durang's play. It's one of those things where, in digging deeper, you grow terrified that you're missing something. The trick is to make sure it doesn't bog down the play. It's a balancing act: You want to keep it light and fun, but with the occasional emotional hit that's a little more serious." Or a little more funny.
The Vietnamization of New Jersey runs Jan. 16–28 at the Harold Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tickets: (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com. Website: www.alchemytheatre.org.