YOU'RE IN THE AIR FORCE NOW
by John Topping
published October 17, 2008
now playing Off Broadway at the Barrow Street Theater
Basic Training is not must-see theater, but it is definitely a
breath of fresh air in this so-far mostly sluggish season. And although you will at no point be doubled over with laughter and gasping for
breath, there are enough satisfying laughs to make the $35 ticket one of the best laugh-to-dollar-ratio deals in town.
Writer/performer Kahlil Ashanti plays 23 characters (all of them quite well) in this hour-long story of his life in the U.S. Air
Force as part of the military entertainment unit Tops In Blue. Woven in and out is his search for his real father, whom he didn't
know existed until the day before he left for basic training, and his relationship with the man who he now knows is his stepfather, a
psychopathically abusive monster whom his mother tolerates because she feels she has no other options. These are the most sobering
moments of the evening, and it feels a bit obligatory to shift from the steady stream of smiles and laughs to the dead serious drama.
But that's life – his – and this is theater, so we would probably sorely miss these weighty interludes if they were entirely
The majority of the evening, however, is buoyant and charming. Since whole scenes and conversations have to be played out by
a single actor, Ashanti convincingly switches characters instantaneously. Among the most amusing characters is his drill sergeant,
who verbally supplies the inductee with the continuity of authoritarian abuse (providing evidence that R. Lee Ermey's character in Stanley
Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket was far from an exaggeration); and the queeny leader of Tops In Blue, whose hilarious conversation with
a non-military black cab driver is much too brief.
Artistically, the only serious flaw is the moments when he is in character as his stepfather doling out physical abuse. Each
blow is delivered in silence, without any sound effects whatsoever, which comes off as more disorienting than effective. Otherwise, it’s a remarkable display of talent in a military story that, refreshingly, is not about the Iraq war.
johntopping @ stageandcinema.com