Full Length Plays
The Vietnamization of New Jersey
The Vietnamization of New Jersey premiered at the
Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT
January 28, 1977
Directed by Walt Jones
Scenic Design by Christopher Clarens
Lighting Design by James Gage
Costume Design by Kathleen Armstrong
Music by Jack Feldman.
Kate McGregor-Stewart as Ozzie Ann (the mother), Charles Levin as Harry (the father), Stephen Rowe as Et (the son), Ben Halley, Jr. as Hazel (the maid), Richard Bey as David, Anne Louise Hoffman as Liat, Charles Levin as Uncle Larry, Jeremy Geidt as Fr. McGillicutty
This play began as a parody of David Rabe’s play Sticks and Bones (which is about a family dealing with their son coming back from Vietnam; and whose characters are named Ozzie and Harriet, for the famously square 50s TV show). It then was expanded to full length, and thematically became closer to Rabe’s play – it too became a look at the American family, in denial and upset, after Vietnam (though the play, unsurprisingly, has a wildly different, surreally comic tone).
Some reviews included:
In “The Vietnamization of New Jersey” playwright Christopher Durang smashes across the American family … in a halftrack of black comedy, satire, silliness and tastelessness and arrives at a surprisingly moving, if not very encouraging, delineation of American character. …the play is its own strange animal, as American as a dump truck of apple pie, treating in its excessive way America’s excesses of imperialism, crime, bigotry and guilt. The special treat of the evening is Ben Halley, Jr. as Hazel, the family maid, who packs more folk wisdom into her total distrust of human behavior than Wilder’s Sabrina ever thought possible.
– John Roberts, New Haven Register
Christopher Durang is a one-man Yale lampoon. He is a diabolically comic writer whose amunition is ridicule and whose weapon is scattershot. The comedy… is not so far removed from “Saturday Night Live” except Mr. Durang is wilder and shaggier. Boss of the house is the black maid, Hazel. She slams doors, interrupts conversations, sweeps dishes off the table, and runs everyone’s life. Hazel is the author’s most audacious conception, and she is played with huge, boisterous confidence by Ben Halley, Jr.
– Mel Gussow, New York Times
Christopher Durang’s zany, violent comedy shows no bias, rending cherished totems and icons of right, left, upper, lower, and middle America. The results…are hilarious. In the highly competent cast, Kate McGregor-Stewart is truly exceptional as Ozzie Ann. Her timing is superb, her agonies ridiculous, her acting marvellous. “The Vietnamization of New Jersey” isn’t a subtle comedy. But, although it can be brutal, it is clever, witty, fast-paced, and enlightening. Regardless of your ideological persuasion, “The Vietnamization of New Jersey” will grab you by the privates, making you roar with laughter and, perhaps, with rage.
– Joan Fleckenstein, Torrington Register
The scene is a middle-class home in 1967 in Piscataway, New Jersey, where Ozzie Ann and Harry have breakfast with their teenage son Et, while waiting for their older son David to come home from Vietnam.
Et has an odd habit of pouring his cereal down his trousers and eating the flakes from inside his underwear. “Et, dear, there are few things mother likes you to do less than that,” Ozzie Ann says. “Don’t do that, dear.” Et ignores her mother; and Harry has trouble speaking up to Et, who scares him.
Ozzie Ann gets frustrated and throws a spoon on the floor, which Hazel the maid refuses to pick up. “People like you are the trouble with America,” says Hazel. “Every ice cream wrapper that blows along a highway was put there by you.” Hazel continues to berate her employers as is her daily custom, and storms back to the kitchen. Ozzie Ann throws the spoon after her, and Hazel comes charging back and pulls the tablecloth and everything on it onto the floor. “It’s a mess, it’s a mess,” says Ozzie Ann.
After the morning struggles settle down, the family begins to focus on David’s imminent arrival.
Shortly, David does arrive home – but he’s blind, and he has a blind Vietnamese wife named Liat with him. Ozzie Ann and Harry don’t know which bothers them more, his being blind or his having married an Asian person.
“She’s got teensy slanted eyes,” says Ozzie Ann. “He’s brought the enemy into the house,” says Harry. “She walks funny,” says Et.
Davey has turned against the war in Vietnam, and instructs his parents to listen to Liat’s story as only she “can forgive us for what our country has done.”
Ozzie Ann and Harry don’t like this kind of talk, and argue with Davey. Davey threatens to leave, they try to change their tone. He then convinces his parents to institute a “reparations plan” for Liat. First they must “let her vote to unite South and North Vietnam,” as had been promised by the Geneva Conference of 1954. Then Davey wants his parents to know the terror Liat faced; he turns the lights out while he and Liat shoot guns and break dishes. (Hazel joins and breaks stuff too.) At the end of this destruction, Davey declares peace in the house.
That’s the first 20 minutes. From there, it turns out Liat is actually Irish, and takes a shine to sexy Et. Davey becomes depressed and starts dressing in Buddhist robes. The action skips to 1974, and the family has fallen on bad economic times during the Ford administration, and must have Campbell’s Chunky Soup for Thanksgiving dinner.
Then Harry loses his job, the walls of the house are dispossessed, and he kills himself. Ozzie Ann and her family now live in a tent on the driveway, when Harry’s militaristic brother Larry shows up. (This character is sort of a parody of David Rabe’s play The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, about the American military.)
Larry whips the family into shape, turning their lives into a kind of domestic boot camp. Et, surprisingly, excels in this macho-strict atmosphere, and beams at Uncle Larry’s frequent compliments. Larry, though, hates liberal, Buddhist-robed Davey, and picks on him unrelentingly, using endless Army-style obscenities to belittle and break him down. Ozzie Ann is bothered by the language, and keeps offering polite synonyms to Larry. Don’t say “asshole,” she begs, say “rectum” instead. Larry refuses.
The house degenerates into warfare and barbed wire and bear traps, and Hazel’s comments on the family get darker and darker. Davey dies at his own hands, and Hazel comforts Ozzie Ann who mutters “it’s a mess, it’s a mess.”
This play is not among Durang’s better known works, and it’s tied to its time period rather.
For instance, Hazel keeps giving jumbled-history “Bicentennial minutes”, which is a reference to a daily occurrence on CBS News during the Bicentennial – every day during the year of 1976 Walter Cronkite of CBS News would end the news with a little history lesson of what Bejamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson or some other famous American had done on that specific date 200 years earlier, and then he’d say “and that’s the way it was 200 years ago today.” Hazel’s little speeches are a reference to and parody of that. The specific reference no longer means anything to people under 45 or so, but I think her jumble of American history is still evocative of the mixed up way we have our country’s origins in our head.
However, the comedy of the family interactions, and the over-the-top style of the story, may make it fun for colleges or for acting classes.
Cast size: 5 male, 2 female
Rights: Dramatists Play Service
Click image to enlarge
Photos by Bill Baker
(l to r) Stephen Rowe, Charles Levin, Kate McGregor-Stewart, Ben Halley, Jr. as Hazel
Ozzie Ann tries out being blind (McGregor-Stewart, Levin)
Et makes his father uncomfortable (Rowe, Levin)
Ozzie doesn't like the way her son eats breakfast. (Rowe, McGregor-Stewart, Levin)