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Far East

Play by A.R. Gurney. Film adaptation directed by Daniel Sullivan, produced by Casey Childs, presented by PBS's Stage on Screen.

Ensign Bob Munger and his friend Lt. j.g. Wallace "Sparky" Watts arrive in an American military installation in Japan in the 1950s. Korea is volatile, Japan is hostile, and Sparky is a vile American from the moment we see him. Sparky and Bob are American Navy officers. Sparky seems impressed with bein' in a gen-you-wine furrin country; Bob sighs that it looks just like every other American air base. Sparky's orders are to help evacuate non-Communists out of Communist Viet Nam. Bob is an intelligence officer.

Sparky needles Bob about not getting out and enjoying Japanese culture. Bob, comfortably sprawled on his cot clad in slightly transparent boxers, notes that he met a local guy who promised to show him some etchings.

Sparky says he's already got a local girlfriend and offers to set Bob up with one of his own, but Bob cheerfully protests "I'm taken." There's a photo of woman on his dresser, although we don't get a name -- or even a glance.

"Oh right, the 'girl back home.' You hardly ever talk about her," Sparky responds. Bob shrugs it off with something about being the "strong silent type."

Bob also gives us a view of his finer assets in that lovely uniform.

At dinner, a waitress trips over a folder Bob has under his chair. He passes it off as "homework" -- security codes he has to memorize, saying casually that he'd rather keep it with him than leave it around their communal quarters. But when Sparky leaves for his date, Bob carefully puts the folder back on the floor under his chair, looking around with some concern.

Next day, a sailor comes into the Document Control room, where Bob is rifling through and rearranging folders, marked "Top Secret," by flashlight. The sailor turns on the light and gives him documents to be "reclassified." Bob agrees, trying to look chipper but obviously awkward.

Bob gets notice that his father is ill and dying, and requests emergency leave of 10 days to get back to Oklahoma. (Aha, that's why he sounds like Trip!) He has Sparky listed as his replacement, and affirms that ol' Sparks is cleared for Top Secret. (I don't know if it's in the text or if it was the director's idea or Connor's, but having him repeatedly call the guy "Sparks" makes the stupid nickname even more grating.)

In Document Control, Bob is rifling through folders again when a sailor lets Sparky in to take chain of custody. Sparky tries to cheer him up about his dad; Bob says is father is the reason he's in the Navy -- "thought it'd... toughen me up," he chuckles weakly.

He puts a binder on the table, gives Sparky the sit-rep, and notes where to initial so he can get out of Dodge. Sparky reaches for the pen... and then takes off his jacket. "I'd better check things over," he says. Bob looks bewildered. And worried.

But Sparky wants to check, so check he does, while Bob gives him a wan grin and paces a bit in the small room. As Sparky actually reads the documents, he discovers classified tactical information about American agents in "Viet Nam" -- the newly renamed French Indochina -- which he didn't expect to see. Bob tries to brush it off and hurry him through, since the car for the airport is on the way.

Then Sparky finds that one of the three copies is missing. "It's, ah, it's out the moment. Don't worry about it, Sparks," he tries to reassure his friend, pouring on the charm and the smile. It doesn't work. They argue for a moment. Bob says he knows where the copy is. Sparky demands the signature of the person who has it.

Bob hangs his head. Sparky guesses that Bob was hoping Sparky would cover for him, and Bob pleads that he has to make his plane. Sparky stops him.

"Okay! Okay." Bob is cornered, frightened. "It's with a civilian." A Japanese civilian, in fact. Who does not have Top Secret clearance.

"I had to, Sparky," he says softly. "Oh, god. He's got pictures. Of me and him. Together." (Yes, "why don't you come up and let me show you my etchings" means the same thing in Japan that it does in Times Square.)

Bob looks completely nauseated to be confessing. Sparky has that WASP-dog-watching-Jeopardy look. Bob's gonna have to spell it out for him. "I shacked up with him, Sparky." He made up the girlfriend, he admits. And bravely looks his friend in the eye and says "I'm a homosexual, Sparks... it's what I am." (Remember this is the 1950s. He's only half a step shy of saying he's a Communist cannibal pedophile.)

To Sparky's credit, he doesn't look disgusted, just upset that a Communist spy has his hands on Top Secret documents. Bob says his boy toykyo promised to return everything, but the telegram came about his father and now he's stuck.

The car arrives. Bob tries to downplay the significance of the material, but Sparky says there are names of secret agents involved. Bob insists that the military routinely makes anything it's not sure of "top secret," and that this particular document probably isn't true -- nobody's in danger even if a spy does have the names.

Sparky asks if Bob got the pictures he was being blackmailed with. He does. "The negatives?" Well... not so much. (So much for being an intelligence officer.)

Sparky refuses to sign. Bob is horrified. "Since when are ya George Washington?!" Sparky won't put his name to a lie. Well, Bob rationalizes, that's okay, he'll be back in 10 days and get the documents back. Sparky says it's not enough -- the agents will be killed in the meantime.

"So what do I do here, Sparks?" Bob pleads, at the end of his hope. Sparky tells him to tell the captain. "I'd be court-martialed!" he says, and tries to leave. Sparky says he'll tell the captain. Bob begs him not to. "It is my job," Sparky the Wonder Lieutenant huffs. "I am a Naval Officer!"

"You are a temporary!" Bob gasps, since Sparky is only in the Navy for another year on the way to bigger and better things, while for Bob this was intended to be a lifetime of service. Sparky piously proclaims they both took an oath. Bob gives up.

"I can't lie, Bobby," Sparky says righteously. "I can't live with that."

Bob, who knows what it's really like to lie, answers with much regret, "Yeah, well... looks like I can't either."

Hat in hand, he goes to the captain's office, where the captain is playing with a shiny new toy plane. "May I speak with you, sir? ... Privately?" (The cutaway annoyed me. This plot was vastly more interesting than the stuck-up country clubbers circling each other like piranhas, but it's not the focus of the play.)

Bob meets with his counsel some time later. Not a lawyer, this guy is merely a pre-law student. Who advises him to plead guilty and hope that the combination of Bob's confession and the falsity of most of the material (three of the four agents were double agents) will get him a lighter sentence. Then he says, with every evidence of meaning well, "No, no, wait, kid... this homosexual thing might just save your ass in the long run. The Navy won't want to know that their intelligence officer at a major naval base in the Far East turned out to be a fruit!" He figures the Navy will cashier Bob quietly, to hush up the scandal, rather than give him a protracted court-martial and risk such exposure. And then he whooshes off to his next adventure... leaving Bob alone, to ponder his fate and his conscience.

Sparky comes to visit him in detention in Tokyo, which is simply the infirmary with a Marine guard. Bob is genuinely surprised and mostly pleased to see him. The guard is primarily in case Bob's feeling suicidal -- which he insists he's not.

"What's your lawyer say?" asks Sparky. "Say?" says Bob. "He says 'sayonara.'" The pre-law student left for early admission to Columbia. (Sparky then lights Bob's cigarette with absolutely no trace of self-consciousness, at least proving this was set pre-Stonewall.) But even so, Bob will be getting a general discharge -- not a dishonorable one -- "to avoid any publicity," he adds bitterly, "about lack of security, and... fags in the Navy." Sparky thinks this is pretty good, all things considered. "Might keep me from becoming president of General Motors," says Bob (which is significant to the rest of the play, but not so much to Bob himself).

"My dad died happy," he tells Sparky quietly, "with a picture of me in uniform right by his bed." Sparky offers a sort of apology for insisting Bob rat himself out, and Bob sort of says he understands.

Then Sparky says "I just hope you're having second thoughts... you know, about this sleeping with guys stuff." Bob answers dryly, "Next time I'm approached by a person of the same sex, well, I'll make sure he's cleared for Top Secret." They both laugh at the gallows humor.

Sparky wants affirmation that they're still friends. Bob says he's a different person now. "I haven't a clue what I'm going to do with the rest of my life... But I do know one thing. I'm tired of lyin'," he says.