Bennett Cohen's "American Music," which has its last performances today as part of the "CalArts in Town" festival at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre, strikes one as a model play-in-progress. While you can guess how many more drafts are in its future, you can also see how far Cohen's work has come from the first scribblings. For once, "progress" means something.
The situation: Miller, a naive enlistee (David F. Beggs); Sanchez, a troubled draftee (Ray Jarol), and Heiser, an overly ambitious superior (Craig Cavanah), don't mix very well in the Quonset they share on the eve of Vietnam.
It doesn't ease matters that Marie (Heather MacDonald), who has her eye on Sanchez, is itching to get out of this Central Valley town for a big city like New York, though Sacramento is more likely.
Ronnie (Theresa Pugh) works with Marie in a coffee shop, and is waiting for Heiser to get promoted or transferred. Why, we're never sure: Heiser and Ronnie seem to share a bed during leave-time, but little else.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 2, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 7 Column 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Design credits were inaccurate in Saturday's review of "American Music." Ray Finnell designed the setting, David Edmiston the lighting and John Sherwood the sound. Jules Aaron directed.
It's at a point like this that watching a good play-in-progress also becomes a process of writing parts of the next draft in your own head. "American Music" is primarily the story of men stuck in a system blocking them from reaching the potential they think they have, which means that playwright Cohen could have chosen the easy way out and deleted the women altogether.
He didn't, but now he has to do something with them. Marie has a poignant, Inge-like scene with Sanchez when they're out on a drunken date, but it's the one and only time we commune with her. With what eventually happens to Sanchez, she's a tragic link lost. Ronnie isn't at that level yet.
On the other hand, Cohen's Miller convinces at a number of levels. The key ones are his obsession with Elvis as a symbol of truth and manhood ("He's not lookin' for a fight, but he won't back down either") and his own lack of any self-identity.
So he latches on to role models like the together Sanchez. After a string of trite advice, Sanchez grows weary of Miller. We could grow weary too, but actor Beggs makes a comic portrait out of Miller's pile of inanities. When he applies his Elvis line to the United State in Vietnam, we get a taste of some unexpected horror.
But even though this is close to David Rabe country, and even though Heiser is a cracker-barrelobviously ready to go off, "American Music" has more sweetness than horror in it. We wonder if it would have been the same 10 years ago. With the Vietnam anniversary upon us, it's a question worth pondering.
As college casts go, this one is fine, including Dion Montez Donaldson's D'Antone. David F. Beggs' spare, mobile set does a nice job of suggesting barracks, tents in the rain and cheap cafes, but it can't take all the clomping boots. Theresa Pugh's lights are impressively subtle, but the design star is Heather MacDonald's intricate sound design--Elvis and his '50s competition.
Last performances today (at 2 and 8 p.m.) at 2627 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (818) 362-2315.