Playwrights Tim Caggiano and Jack Calvin Hanna have set their story in the summer of 1964. A collection of outcast soldiers — lumped together as “murderers, thieves and queers” — have been placed in U.S. Army purgatory, where they are divided into two groups: a so-called blue camp (the gay men) and a green camp (the accused criminals). Awaiting their dishonorable discharges (and the loss of their GI Bill benefits), the two camps shower each other with insults and anxiety. When the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution steers the United States toward engagement in the Vietnam War, the military brass considers these disenfranchised soldiers for “reclamation” and deployment.
Does reclamation constitute acceptance or opportunism? As one soldier notes, “One day you’re a pariah, and the next day you’re leading the parade.” The Rainbow Theatre Project, with its mission to share LGBTQ stories, is a fitting platform for such worthy discussion. Although progress has been made in the decades since Vietnam, homophobic discrimination remains a scourge in need of eradication. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is still an all-too-recent memory, after all, and President Trump just implemented his transgender military ban earlier this year.
But director Christopher Janson’s production too often wields cliches, plot contrivances and clunky dialogue while taking aim at the topic. Simone Schneeberg’s minimalist set design — with scuffed floors, crates and a cot — turns a modest space at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church into a serviceable barracks, only for “Blue Camp’s” jarring pacing to undermine any illusion. The decision to fill the scene transitions with predictable pop songs of the era (think the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Dusty Springfield) is another misfire.
Overambition is a culprit, as the play struggles to humanize its unwieldy cast of characters. That’s a shame, because the blue camp contingent is populated with intriguing figures. Out-and-proud Billy (a magnetic Moses Bossenbroek) is an ace marksman by day and drag queen by night. Arnold (Daniel Riker) is a conflict-averse intellectual with an affinity for Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg and Michelangelo. We also meet smooth-talking mechanic Jantzen (Jared Michael Swain) and ex-high school jock Gary (Lansing O’Leary), a religious soul still coming to terms with his sexuality.
“Blue Camp” works best when its disparate characters cross paths on common ground, balancing humor and sentimentality. But the muddled green camp characters (played by Ivan Carlo, Noah Beye, Rocky Nunzio and Reginald Richard) can make these moments tough to sell. The play takes the time to introduce their respective demons — alcoholism, kleptomania and violence, among them — then moves on with little resolution. And too many members of the ensemble turn their performances into caricatures.
That said, the play is grounded by two sequences inspired by actual events: an Army-sponsored drag show and a baseball game between the two camps. These scenes play out as fascinating detours, made absorbing by their remarkable real-life roots. It’s just too bad “Blue Camp” isn’t a better home for its admirable intentions.
Blue Camp, by Tim Caggiano and Jack Calvin Hanna. Directed by Christopher Janson. Set, Simone Schneeberg; costumes, T.F. Dubois; lighting, Elliott Shugoll; sound, Elliot Lanes. With Jared H. Graham and Craig Houk. About one hour and 55 minutes. Through Nov. 24 at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, 555 Water St. SW. Tickets: $35. rainbowtheatreproject.org.