There is no shortage of tales of young love overcoming the odds in theater, but it’s fair to say that few couples have had to deal with a beginning as inauspicious as Rose and Eddie do in Dogfight. The bittersweet new musical is based on the neglected 1991 film of the same name, which starred River Phoenix and Lili Taylor as a young Marine on the eve of his deployment to Vietnam and the girl he brings to a contest with his friends for the ugliest date. It serves as the New York début for the young writing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who have steadily made a name for themselves in recent years for their richly lyrical and honest songs, as in their Edges cycle about the irresolute waywardness of the millennial generation.
In Dogfight, the inherent cruelty of the premise is softened by the nuanced music, run through with melancholy and tender, delicate harmonies appropriate to the intimate dimensions of the small house at the Off Broadway Second Stage Theatre. Pasek and Paul (as they are professionally known) work with a musical language that feels distinctly modern, the sort of blending of classical tradition with contemporary aesthetics that has become the dominant idiom of progressive new shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Passing Strange, and Spring Awakening. Newcomers Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena are perfect fits as the young pair trying to find themselves and each other.
It should come as no surprise that Rose and Eddie end up together, after he apologizes and asks for a second chance and she accepts, and Dogfight offers insight into the risks we take to find one brief night of happiness, albeit one that is tempered by the knowledge that, as in Richard Linklater’s perfect Before Sunrise, it will all end come dawn. The music is appropriately searching, tinged with sorrow—the boys are headed to Vietnam, after all, and we know from the start that chances are they won’t all come back—and a touch of bitterness. There’s an underlying anger at life’s futility and brevity, and even the brutishness here comes off as just another violent and futile thrash against fate.
Dogfight runs through August 19 at Second Stage Theatre.