The setting: a virtually naked stage. The cast: two men. The subject: Viet Nam. That again? Artists and con artists have spent the past decade replaying and reworking "the Viet Nam experience," reporting it and satirizing it, sending it up an apocalyptic river, holding it to our conscience like The Deer Hunter's revolver. It's over, already. We've heard that song, memorized it, sung it in our sleep, are sick unto bloody death of it.
So here [comes Amlin Gray's How I Got That Story]…. And lo, Viet Nam lives in Gray's nightmarishly funny vaudeville. A Buddhist monk sets himself ablaze; an Army lieutenant is shot in the back by his troops; a B-52 crashes in enemy territory; a Viet Nam village falls to guerrillas; Saigon orphans cry out in blind despair—and the effect is bracingly therapeutic. Talent does that, when it gels as it does here, when it infects all the participants on both sides of the footlights. How I Got That Story makes splendid use of that precious theatrical asset, the playgoer's imagination….
The beleaguered nation of Amboland welcomes a new recruit in the first years of its civil war: an innocent young reporter from Dubuque…. This Candide in khaki enters the war as a neutral observer. He believes that "if I just keep my eyes open, I can understand the whole world." He soon enough does, to his sorrow, and with the help of a dozen soldiers and civilians he meets along the Via Dolorosa. Half of them are Americans, half Ambolanders; three are women….
These "historical events" serve as avatars and parodies of the looking-glass warriors, and most of them are perversely delightful. Mme. Ing, the patrician Borgia who rules Amboland, ends every discussion with the despot's stern logic: "Mme. Ing has won that argument," she purrs. U.S. Army Lieutenant Thibodeaux brags that the service "taught me how to fight and how to swear"—and then demonstrates just how poorly he learned at least one of those lessons as he expectorates a stream of hilariously garbled obscenities. A Saigon prostitute, blinking and cooing like a neon China doll, whispers rote nothings into our hero's ear; he thinks she's talking politics. A combat photographer boasts of the limbs he has lost in action and lures the reporter into the fray. "These flights are ab-stract!" he exults as the bomber tails into its fatal dive….
And at the end, on the blank stage of the reporter's mind, nothing is everything. He is not alone. The imaginative playgoer, who has assisted throughout in peopling this surreal mindscape, thus implicates himself in the reporter's disintegration. The successive circles of hell blend and accelerate into a whirlpool of familiar, frightening apparitions. The Viet Nam nightmare is alive and well. "That story" is everyone's.
Richard Corliss, "Viet Nam Vaudeville," in Time (copyright 1980 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 116, No. 25, December 22, 1980, p. 76.