During the Vietnam War the island of Penang in Malaysia was a destination for rest and relaxation (R&R) for troops, but in James L. Larocca’s eponymous play it is also the source of a mystery about his hero, Tim Riordan. An offering of the Midtown International Theater Festival, Penang is about many things: the pressures of combat, the need for human connection amid killing fields, and the age-old question of why God permits pain and evil to flourish. It is also about primal fears, and it provides a great deal to chew on. Tim Riordan (Brett Davidson) is a Navy lieutenant whose job is guiding helicopters on and off the deck of his ship in the Mekong Delta. One night in 1968, in the darkness and against the wind, a foolish pilot tries to take off and kills himself and several men on deck, including Tim’s closest friend.
The scene jumps to a hospital room in San Diego, where Tim is being treated by a doctor, Leona Kaufman (Ingrid Kullberg-Bendz), after an attempted suicide. Employing a top-notch bedside manner, warm and calm, Kaufman teases out the reason for Tim’s slitting his wrists after his return from R&R in Penang, seemingly in good psychological health. Scenes alternate between hospital and island paradise as she learns what happened in Penang following the copter crash. The mishap that killed Tim’s friend wasn’t the first time he lost a buddy unexpectedly.
In Penang, Tim strikes up a friendship with a U.S. Air Force captain, Richard DeLuca, aka “Luke.” Luke is a stereotypical native of Queens with a thick Sopranos-style accent (he uses the overworked “Fuggedaboudit” as a catch phrase), a snappy delivery, and a yen for pretentious irony, particularly during a turgid anticlerical diatribe. A little goes a long way, and Robert Sabri pushes too hard, tipping the balance from engagingly brash to downright annoying.
For a while, though, the actors convey a believable friendship, as they hire a Malaysian guide named Jimmy Chen (Ben Hersey). Hersey adds color and lightness to the proceedings, until he speaks of the cruelties of the Japanese in World War II and the death of his son. That leads to Tim’s losing control in an existential rant. “They died, that’s all, they just died,” he says. “They died alone, so all alone. They died in hell...”
The friendship, moreover, leads into unexpected territory: a drunken sexual liaison, the limits of which are murky. “I don’t think it was about sex or that kind of stuff at all,” says Tim. “It was about friendship and just being there and caring and helping each other.” Yet one may read in Tim’s succession of intense relationships with his dead friends a suggestion of repressed homosexuality, and he balks at connecting with women in Penang. (The lean Davidson, with the looks of a male model, has an epicene quality that works nicely for the character.) But Sabri’s rough-edged Luke is a bizarre object of affection: Imagine Montgomery Clift drawn to Jerry Lewis.
Director Donya K. Washington has staged the story simply (there are no credits for set or costumes, which is probably why Tim wears anachronistic cargo shorts) with a bed and two metal folding chairs, but at times during the first performance the scenes moved sluggishly. Unusually, a great deal resides on David Schulder's sound design, which starts off with noises of war and segues to classical music, evoking Apocalypse Now. It is near-constant, often muted in the background, and it incorporates both sounds of war and songs like Neil Diamond’s “Green, Green Grass of Home.”
Occasionally, though, the sound undermines the actors, particularly Kullberg-Bendz and Hersey in quieter scenes; they need to project better. It’s a shame, because Kullberg-Bendz is outstanding as the therapist, evoking a lively concern and professionalism. Dave Powers as Luke’s hulking roommate at the Air Force base also provides a deft counterpoint in his sexual brutality to the connection that Luke and Tim make.
Although Penang has a lot of interesting ideas, they don’t meld together perfectly, and some elements seem underdeveloped. Still, Larocca has created characters interesting enough to hold one’s attention, and he’s not afraid to take his plot to dark corners. That’s something to please any serious theatergoer.