Leo Farley, who starred as the messy over-eater in The Food Chain, didn't exactly take a direct route to Off-Broadway. He spent 1970-71 with the 52 Signal Battalion in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. He was 18.
Those memories don't go away, and now Farley, a member of NY's 29th Street Repertory, will direct John DiFusco's brutal Vietnam drama, Tracers, for the company. The show opened Sept. 18.
The show itself was conceived by DiFusco but developed as a group project by eight Nam vets. Tracers' 1980 premiere at L.A.'s Odyssey Theatre nabbed an L.A. Drama Critics Award. A 1983 mounting at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre brought the show a Jeff Award for Ensemble performance. The Vietnam Veterans Ensemble staged the show at the Public Theatre; 1985 saw the show at London's Royal Court Theatre. Earlier this year, Tracers was produced at Santa Monica Playhouse.
Asked how he wound up in Nam, Farley told Playbill On-Line (Sept. 19), "My economic status at the time didn't give me many options. I didn't have the money for college and was working for Merrill Lynch out of high school. I got drafted three months before they started the lottery. I thought of ways to get out of it, including going to Canada, but I didn't have the physique to be a lumberjack."
Because he worked on the teletype and was branded a communications specialist, Farley was stationed in Cantoh, 150 miles south of Saigon. "I wasn't out in the bush so to speak," he said, "just guard duty and mortar attacks twice a week to keep us honest. But the fear, the boredom, the loneliness... Scenes in the play have people turning to drugs, etc., because they're growing up so fast. They fight demons because of all the killing." Asked what distinguished Tracers from such other Nam-era works as Sticks And Bones and Streamers, Farley said, "Tracers was pre-Platoon, so it was before people started really talking about all this stuff. You had M*A*S*H, but I don't think they had the guts to use Vietnam, so they put it in Korea. Yes, I worry, is this play still powerful now? You hear from people, `Enough already!', and Vietnam is probably more an American obsession than anywhere else. I still think the play helps us look at people in this situation and understand their experience. It's not a morality play; it doesn't offer any beautiful tie-ups. People are still undecided about how It still strikes a chord. After the war I worked on Wall Street for 14 years before I even got into theatre, so for me it was a chance to finally tell the story. I'm still very tied to that family of Vietnam veterans; no matter what the experience, we all went through it." Starring in the 29th Street Rep staging of Tracers are Rep members Vincent Rotolo, David Mogentale, Neil Necastro and Thomas Wehrle, as well as Tony DeVito, Jonathan Powers, Walker Richards and William Francis Smith.
Mark Symzak (set), Stewart Wagner (lighting), Gerard Drazba (sound) and Elizabeth Elkins (costumes). Rhoda Cosme serves as choreographer.
For tickets ($15) and information on Tracers call (212) 465-0575.
--By David Lefkowitz