Sunday, April 19, 2020


Albert Hall, William Atherton, Victoria Racimo.
  "In Lieu of Reviews"


For background on how this previously unpublished series—introducing all mainstream New York shows between 1970 and 1975—came to be and its relationship to my three The Encyclopedia of the New York Stage volumes (covering every New York play, musical, revue, and revival between 1920 and 1950), please check the prefaces to any of the earlier entries beginning with the letter “A.” See the list at the end of the current entry.
Joe Fields, William Atherton.
THE BASIC TRAINING OF PAVLO HUMMEL [Drama/Military/Vietnam/War] A: David Rabe; D: Jeff Bleckner; S: David Mitchell; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; L: Martin Aronstein; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Public Theater/Estelle R. Newman Theater; 5/20/71-4/1/72 (363)

Considered at the time, in John Simon’s words, “much the best play about the [Vietnam] war so far,” The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel was a major work of the decade. It was the first in David Rabe’s trilogy of plays about the war to be seen in New York, followed the same year by Sticks and Bones (written in 1969) and ending with Streamers in 1977. These works mirror the anguish his combat experiences—in the medical corps between 1965 and 1967—caused both him and his countrymen.

In 1972, the Boston Theatre Company produced the play, under David Wheeler’s direction, with Al Pacino in the title role. Pacino reprised the performance for the play’s Broadway production, in 1977, at the Longacre Theatre. Also directed by Wheeler, with a mostly new cast, it ran for 117 performances.

Pavlo Hummel (William) is a sort of non-descript, naïve, sad sack, an illegitimate child who enlists in the army and is sent to Vietnam, where he is assigned to the medical corps. He succeeds in being transferred to the infantry, where he struggles energetically to establish a sense of self-respect among his fellow soldiers, who usually bully and mock him. In Vietnam, a local prostitute becomes his girlfriend, but he dies in the brothel from a grenade explosion following a fight with another soldier over the girl.
William Coffin, William Atherton.
The play begins with his death and tells his story in flashback. We see him in boot camp, being trained by a powerful, domineering, black sergeant (Joe Fields), and later in Southeast Asia. All along, Ardell (Albert Hall), a black soldier seen only by Pavlo, appears at his side, an alter ego who addresses him with compassion.

Some thought the major weakness of the play was its failure to portray the characters (especially Pavlo) in three dimensions, others thought the situations were not all clearly worked out. The stylized cinematic narrative techniques made the plot sometimes difficult to follow. Walter Kerr complained of the drama’s “indecision and . . . inconclusiveness.” Admitting its excellence of language and fine observation of details, he still hedged about “the story [making] no graspable contribution to the play for which we are still trying to find a shape.”
Sloane Shelton, William Atherton.
But the consensus was that here was a potent, vital, new playwriting voice, which could create “a tumultuous . . . [if] somewhat incoherent drama,” as Richard Watts put it. Martin Gottfried said Pavlo Hummel was “an extraordinary play, not always consistent.” The “war is hell” message proved old hat to Clive Barnes but the truthful dialogue and explosive conflicts were compelling.

Of the actors, Joe Fields’s belligerent sergeant and William Atherton’s feckless Pavlo were singled out for their superiority. Jeff Bleckner’s imaginative direction was similarly lauded. Rabe won the Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award and the Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Playwright, while Bleckner was given an OBIE for Distinguished Direction and a Drama Desk Award as Most Promising Director. 

Previous entries: 

Abelard and Heloise
Absurd Person Singular
“Acrobats” and “Line”
The Advertisement/
All My Sons
All Over
All Over Town
All the Girls Came Out to Play
Alpha Beta
L’Amante Anglais         
American Gothics
And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little       
And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers
And Whose Little Boy Are You?
Anna K.
Anne of Green Gables
Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead
As You Like It
The Au Pair Man

Baba Goya [Nourish the Beast]
The Ballad of Johnny Pot