Act I The play opens with the title character, Pavlo, in a Vietnamese brothel with the prostitute Yen. Pavlo brags about his various escapades as a soldier, but underneath his bravado he appears insecure and edgy. A grenade is tossed through the window, Pavlo picks it up and attempts to throw it back out, but it explodes, mortally wounding him. Ardell enters, a black soldier in a "strangely unreal" uniform who serves as Pavlo's alter ego throughout the play (only Pavlo can see or hear Ardell). Ardell's entrance triggers for the dying Pavlo a flashback of his army life; this jumbled series of recollections constitute the fragmented action of the play.
The action goes back in time to Pavlo's arrival at boot camp. There he encounters Sergeant Tower, the imposing drill sergeant ("I'm bigger than my name"), who immediately isolates Pavlo for' 'looking about at the air like some kinda fool" and makes him do push-ups; this initiates a pattern which is repeated throughout the play.
Though Pavlo desperately wants to identify as part of a group, his quirky individualism gets him in trouble not only with Tower but with the other recruits as well. Two of these men, Kress and Parker, are working in a furnace room and are particularly dissatisfied with their situation. Their comments reveal that Pavlo has quickly developed a bad reputation: Kress in particular curses the army for "stickin' me in with weird people" and wishes that Hummel would die. When Kress and Parker leave, Pavlo tries to please the squad leader. Pierce, by reciting the Genera! Orders, to "see if I'm sharp enough to be one a your boys." When the whistle for company formation is blown, however, Pavlo ignores it. and is again reprimanded by Tower. Pavlo is then confronted by a group of trainees who accuse him of stealing a soldier's wallet and consequently give him a "blanket party" (that is. they cover him in a blanket and collectively beat him).
The end of basic training arrives, and when the scores of the final proficiency tests are announced, Kress and one other soldier have been held back. They will be "recycled" (sent back for eight more weeks of training), while the rest of the men are sent home until they receive their assignments. Pavlo tells Kress "1 feel sorry for you" and asks him several questions. Kress feels he is being taunted, so he attacks Pavlo and can only be subdued with great difficulty.
Pavlo, having blurted out previously that he plans to kill himself, swallows an entire bottle of aspirin; his life is on the line as the other men attempt to revive him. The act closes with a monologue of Ardell's in which he tells Pavlo, "Ain't doin' you no good you wish you dead, 'cause you ain't, man." Ardell transforms Pavlo by putting the latter in his dress uniform and sunglasses, preparing him for his trip home.
Act II The act opens on an address by the Captain to the platoon regarding the commencement of bombing campaigns against North Vietnam. The troops scatter at the end of this speech, and the scene changes immediately to Pavlo's arrival at the home of his half-brother, Mickey. The relationship between Pavlo and Mickey is somewhat strained Pavlo appears anxious to prove himself as Mickey provokes him by refusing to believe Pavlo is in the army and stating that "Vietnam don't even exist " Pavlo lies about his relationships with the other men in his platoon, claiming "I got people who respect me."
Pavlo's frustrations at home continue as he unsuccessfully attempts to...
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track down an old girlfriend, Joanna, whom he suggests might have killed herself out of despair (in reality, she is now married). Pavlo is then thwarted in his attempts to get his mother to reveal to him the identity of his father. Instead, Mrs. Hummel is fixated on a story about a coworker learning of her son's death in Vietnam; "I know what to expect," she says to Pavlo, a foreshadowing of Pavlo's own demise.
Interspersed with these scenes of home life are glimpses of Pavlo with his platoon. The scene then shifts fully to Vietnam, where Pavlo, despite his protests, has been posted as a medic at a mobile hospital. The setting of the field hospital—where Pavlo cares for the crippled Sgt. Brisbey—is juxtaposed against the setting of Mamasan's brothel, where Pavlo meets Jones and has his first sexual experience with the prostitute Yen. The scene of Pavlo and Yen's lovemaking is interspersed with another of Sergeant Tower's lectures to the platoon, this one about the care of their M-16 rifle: “You got to have feelin' for it, like it a good woman to you. .'' Pavlo marches away from his bed as the rest of the troops move out, and the scene changes back to the hospital. Brisbey is obviously depressed about his condition. (' 'Some guys, they get hit, they have a stump," he says. "I am a stump.") Brisbey hints at a desire to commit suicide, asking for Pavlo's rifle to ''save you from the sin of cruelty,'' but Pavlo refuses, attempting to dissuade Brisbey from his suicidal thoughts.
The setting of the field hospital is juxtaposed against a scene of Parhara, a young Black PFC, attempting to cross a dangerous field under orders. Parham is wounded and cries for a medic, instead he is discovered by two Viet Cong who torture him for information, then kill him. Pavlo arrives with Ryan, and in attempting to remove Parham's body from the field, Pavlo is wounded. Ryan returns to retrieve Pavlo, as a body detail removes Parham; these actions are juxtaposed against a series of addresses by Sergeant Tower to his troops. A series of short scenes follow dramatizing Pavlo being wounded two more times. Pavlo begins agitating to be sent home; instead, he is given the Purple Heart and sent back to duty.
At Mamasan's brothel, Pavlo is quarreling with Sergeant Wall over the attentions of Yen, "the whore I usually hit on." Pavlo assaults Wall, who leaves and returns moments later, throwing in the grenade which kills Pavlo. Ardell and Pavlo have their final interaction as Pavlo is sealed in his coffin Pavlo admits that in the end, the cause for and the circumstances under which he died are "all shit." This serves as the play's final pronouncement on not only war, but the human condition more broadly, as Ardell slams Pavlo's coffin shut and exits the stage.