Vietnam war story.
Funny/not-so funny Vietnam war story being told up on the terrace of the Kennedy Center by playwright Amlin Gray, author of "How I Got That Story."
"I was within three weeks of my discharge. I'd just spent a year as a medic in III Corps. We had this new captain who made us squat out in the middle of this field and listen to this lecture on the history of 1st Medical Battalion. I was short [close to discharge] and I was tired. I found it pretty funny. They weren't able to muster anything impressive except in terms of defeats. Like, 1st Medical Battalion had lost a larger percentage of troops in World War I than any other unit."
Gray smiles the small and lethally understanding smile he might have smiled back then, except now he's sitting outside on a May morning in peacetime. American flags churn in the breeze, the Washington Monument aspires to flight, and overhead the Goodyear blimp sidles around the skies as if looking for something it had lost.
"Then we were told that our company, Company A, had been the only unit in World War II to be completely wiped out. I gave out a big bark of laughter, and this captain dragged me away. He went into the orderly room and had orders typed up to put me on a search-and-destroy sweep. He said: "I want him dead."
But he was too short. They couldn't send him out on the sweep.
Also, maybe there's a point where the ironies get too thick for even the Army. Gray was a conscientious objector who had nonetheless given up his student deferment because "I decided it was indefensible and class-ist. And I thought I owed something to my country. I kept thinking, 'I should be in Vietnam.' So I allowed myself to be drafted, and became an unarmed medic. I got it from the stoned pacifits on one side and the guys in the Army on the other."
Not to mention the Viet Cong everywhere.
He never got wounded. But when he finally got out of the Army, and was enrolling in the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, the draft board made a mistake and said he could be drafted again.
"I was riding my bicycle down to the draft board to explain, and I got hit by a truck," he says.
War play, "How I Got That Story," which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, tells a lot of them. One character called "The Reporter," a gee-whiz kid from Dubuque who wields a notebook like a shield, is so objective he learns nothing whatsoever. The other character is called "The Historical Event," which is to say the whole war, the whole sum of ironies and fascination that Vietnam, which he calls "Amboland," became for us. The Historical Event takes various guises: the despotic Madame Ing, a gasoline-suicide monk, a guerrilla officer, a bar girl, an Air Force pilot, a crazed photographer who loses more and more limbs to wounds, a total of 20 different characters.
Gradually, The Reporter becomes so involved with the Historical Event that he throws away his notebook and his objectivity. He comes to understand The Historical Event, but he loses his identity.
"It's about more than Vietnam," Gray says. "It's about the problem of living in the world with full consciousness, but with involvement at the same time. We have such enormous quantities of information coming at us. People do such outrageous things to protect themselves from it. You can see it on the subways in New York, the people with the cotton in their ears. Or joggers with the earphones on, the kids with those huge radios putting out continual rhythm. The rhythm gives form to what's around them."
He wrote the play two years ago in Milwauke, where he's a playwright with the Milwaukee Repretory Company. The play started with three acts, but its down to two after seven productions from Texas to Rhode Island. An English production is in rehearsal. A recent New York run got big praise from The New York Daily News and The New York Times.
"Nightmarishly funny vaudeville," said Time magazine.
He's still working on it, tinkering with lines, cutting, adding.
"I've had six full-length plays produced, and the first draft of this one only took three weeks. But I've been revising ever since. I've rewritten it more than any other play I've done. The particular dificulty of getting the play right is dealing with that dislocated tone, the funny and upsetting things alternating very fast, and sometimes overlapping."
He is 35, tall, thin and sandy-haired. He's the son of an advertising man and business consultant. He grew up in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., a suburb of New York City. He went to St. John's College, in Santa Fe, N.M. He wears a red flannel shirt and creased blue jeans. He seems intensely observant and intenselh reserved at the same time; a bit of a reporter by nature, but too intrigued by paradoz and ambiguity to make a journalist.
Except maybe in Vienam. This play is as ambitious a summing up as we've had, and by far the funniest.
"Audiences have a hard time laughing about Vietnam. That's why I like to have veterans come. We had two groups in Chicago, they laughed and laughed. Afterwards, we got together and they told a lot of stories."
He doesn't mean that either he or they were looking for therapy. They were just talking, he's just writing. "I think that the best things written about Vietnam aren't about dealing with the experience on a personal level."
Another level that nobody ever deals with is the peculiar nostalgia that a lot of veterans can feel for a place they hated being in, but like to remember.
"I think about it," Gray says, as the Goodyear blimp wanders overhead again in the starch-crisp May morning sky.
"There's a real kind of undertow about Vietnam. It exerts a pull on me. Just being there . . . you were thrown into a situation of instant intimacy. And you knew, everybody knew, there was no way to win it on the terms we were fighting it, so all you tried to do was get through it. It intnsified the expericence of being there. It was living moment to moment. There was a kind of experience I'll never have again, not that I'd want it."
Objectivity. Involvement. Somewhere between the two of them is how he got the story.