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9-Ball takes its cue from Vietnam
Written and directed by Art Devine. Set by Dan Joy. Costumes by Robin McLaughlin. Lighting by Trevor Norton. Sound by Tim Healy. Fight director T. J. Glenn. With Justyn Eldredge, Matthew Keefe, Daniel Kelley, Justin Brymer, Beno Chapman, David Wallace, David Matrango, John "Sib" Hashian, and Mwanyota Allen. At the Tremont Theatre through May 22.

Sprawling and epic, Art Devine’s ambitious Vietnam-era drama 9-Ball did boffo business during two sold-out runs at East Brewster’s Cape Rep Theatre, and most of the original cast has reconvened for a Boston run. The play, ostensibly based on an actual incident in Lynn, has an unusual, occasionally maddening, structure: dueling story lines that frequently intersect and overlap. And at first glance, unlikely and unlikable protagonists. Richie Feinberg is a punk with a record, and Larry Doucette is a socially inept numbers whiz.

Richie yearns to join the paratroopers, but a police record prevents him from enlisting, whereas Larry’s draft number has come up, and he’s desperate for an out after seeing his buddies return from their tours of duty broken and unrecognizable. He’s desperate enough to approach Richie, a bully he remembers from grammar school, with a mad scheme (possible in a precomputerized world). What if they exchange identities? Richie is skeptical at first. "I’m a real badass," he says scathingly. "Are you a badass, Larry? How goddamn bad are you?"

Well, pretty goddamn bad, we learn. Before long, the pair has switched wallets and destinies, and the remainder of 9-Ball unfolds in slangy, frequently violent vignettes. Larry gets nabbed for one of Richie’s crimes and is promptly sent off to Walpole, where his mathematical acumen gets him status. Richie completes his basic training and figures out a way to get a coveted slot in paratrooper school. But neither man is (or acts like) a prince in this prince/pauper revision, though Larry gains confidence and Richie gets hefty helpings of humility.

Both men acquire sidekicks who have even less clout in their respective institutions (a hophead cellmate for Larry; an African-American buddy for Richie). Those relationships humanize the two protagonists and also help orient the audience, as the locale shifts frequently among barrooms, barracks, cells, and storerooms. Fortunately, Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater resident designer Dan Joy’s complex set is extremely versatile. Hurricane fence surrounds the stage on three sides, with lockers interspersed behind; downstage there are two playing areas, one with a pool table, bar, and hanging fluorescent lights; the other with a movable metal bunk bed that serves for army and prison scenes. The décor (which includes ’60s-era pin-ups and pre-psychedelic rock-concert posters) is authentic, as is much of the vernacular.

The nine-member cast is all men — females are not only absent but alluded to less frequently than in Mr. Roberts. When not on call, the supporting players often lurk behind the fence. Except for the actors portraying Richie and Larry, the performers play anywhere from two to six different characters, including thugs, GIs, and cons. This puts a different spin on that adage, "It takes a village."

After Devine, who also directed, the next-hardest-working man in the company has to be fight coordinator T. J. Glenn. Nine-Ball is exuberantly, even campily violent, with various muggings, beatings, and ass-whuppin’s dispensed in both prison and army scenes. Devine has a writerly insight into the interchangeability of settings when it comes to the inevitability of a smackdown. Virtually every 9-Ball character is chronically defensive and defiant, imprisoned by the rituals of "manhood."

So why go? Because 9-Ball is both an accurate and an unvarnished portrait of the so-called "Summer of Love," as well as a highly stylized theatrical fist smashing the glass and letting the shards fly. The cast is dynamic, particularly Justyn Eldredge as Richie and Matthew Keefe as Larry. Everyone brings individuality and personality to a veritable sea of blokes. Daniel Kelley, who plays the hophead and a naïve soldier, turns in a bravura performance, credible right down to withdrawal shakes.

Sometimes the interlocking-scenes device works as smoothly as gears meshing, as when Richie and Larry arrive at the induction center and at prison simultaneously and have orders barked in their faces. But even when scenes are overwrought and overexplained, spiced with needless red herrings, there’s usually an unexpected, redemptive twist. The best of these comes in the penultimate scene, set in-country. It features that time-tested stratagem: weary soldiers preparing for battle under the unhelpful guidance of an inept leader. Here, Devine raises the stakes in ways that are subtle and surprising, and he gives business to nearly every actor. For this alone, 9-Ball racks up an impressive score.

Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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