Between last season’s Carrie revival and Dogfight, the adaptation of Nancy Savoca’s tender 1991 sleeper hit now playing at the Second Stage Theatre, the characters played by Derek Klena have had no problem asking the girl out, whether it’s to a high school prom or a game centered around a cruel party trick. Folks who have seen either movie or their stage adaptations know that subsequent events don’t always go in either of his character’s favor, but one thing’s for sure: Klena is having a wonderfully fruitful year for an actor still currently enrolled as an undergrad at UCLA.
Set in San Francisco on Nov. 21, 1963 (does the date ring a bell?), at a time when the word Vietnam elicited a “where?” instead of an “Oh no,” Dogfight, originally written by Bob Comfort, takes place right before the whole world turns upside down for its four central characters—three Marines and one woman whom they encounter on their last night before shipping out.
Dogfight has been adapted by librettist Peter Duchan and musicians Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and, under the tight direction of Joe Mantello, is a smart example of a how to make a measured musical of subtle source material without miring it in melodrama.
Klena plays Eddie Birdlace, a rough youth. With his two comrades, Dickie Bernstein (Nick Blaemire) and Ralphie Boland (Josh Segarra)—named “The Three Bees” because their last names got them grouped together during infantry training—they make for a loyal bunch who decide to spend their last night on the titular event, a party in which each guy finds the ugliest date he can. Whichever one is scores the “highest” unknowingly earns him the evening’s winnings.
Eddie brings Rose (Lindsay Mendez, with an uncanny resemblance to Lili Taylor, the actress who originated the role onscreen), a homely, unsuspecting waitress, to the party. The events that occur over the rest of the evening bring out the true colors of each of the Three Bees, and the lessons learned work at both an intimate level and a cultural one, sizing up the social changes about to rock the world.
Klena and Mendez create a wonderful dance of awkwardness, hurt and tentativeness, particularly Mendez, who creates a viscerally affecting character in Rose by never condescending to her as mere victim or virgin. Klena is particularly adroit when telegraphing Eddie’s pain and lacking self-confidence, and both his “Come Back” and the pair’s duet “First Date/Last Night” perfectly encapsulate the way young adults know more than they should, even when they think they haven’t experienced anything at all.
David Zinn’s lazy Susan set and Paul Gallo’s subtle lighting design also impress, as do a pair of other supporting performances: Segarra’s hard-boiled Boland and Annaleigh Ashford’s comedic turn as a wizened fellow participant in the dogfight.
Dogfight suggests that major change can only start with individual revolutions; this show, rife with artistic potential, suggests exactly the same thing.
Through Aug. 19, Second Stage Theater, 305 W. 43rd St., 212-246-4422, www.2st.com.
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