EmptyGeffen Playhouse, Westwood
Through May 27
When we first meet them, Gustave and Henri (George Segal and Len Cariou) are sitting on a tree-lined terrace staring blankly into space while Philippe (Richard Benjamin) is reading Le Monde. Gustave and Henri immediately get into a meaningless argument over whether the month of August is worth caring about. The impressive stone wall behind the terrace appears to stretch on to infinity.
If the setting and opening tone for Gerald Sibleyras' "Heroes" are suspiciously metaphysical -- and even faintly absurd with a stone statue of a dog front and center -- the play it supports is more conventional with its themes of friendship and the value of male bonding. What the comedy does share with "Waiting for Godot" is a lot of waiting and unspoken wondering about what comes next.
The men are World War I vets in their 60s or thereabouts living in a French veterans' hospital run by nuns in 1959. Gustave, a recent arrival, is a cranky fellow who yearns to be somewhere else. Philippe, who took some shrapnel in his head, has a wry sense of humor but tends to pass out without warning. Henri, who has a bad leg, is more sociable and cheerful than the others, often putting him at odds with Gustave. They pass their time in complaint, idle chit-chat and silly power struggles until one day the idea of escaping to a grove of poplars swaying in the distance takes hold of their imaginations. It's a futile dream, of course, but serves to give the play some forward momentum.
This is not a terribly prepossessing trio, but as the play goes on they tend to grow on you. Their very lack of distinction and concrete personal history tends to focus our attention on their simple human qualities, much like Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett's masterpiece. For all their bickering and wishful thinking, they share a bond only war vets understand, plus an awareness of what awaits them that lends the play an underlying tenderness.
The cast obviously has an enormous amount of acting experience, but still has a way to go to capture the easy, lived-in familiarity of the situation. Everyone seems to be "acting" at this point -- quite well at times, but not well enough to allow us to forget they're acting.
It's worth noting that playwright Tom Stoppard, who did the translation, changed the play's title from "The Wind in the Poplars" to "Heroes." The new title adds a certain irony to the proceedings as only Gustave might qualify as a genuine war hero. But then again, for all their bluster and failed schemes and dreams, there is a certain heroism, the play tells us, in just being human and getting out of bed in the morning; and, of course, being of a certain age. Thea Sharrock directs.
Presented by the Geffen Playhouse by arrangement with David Pugh, Dafydd Rogers and the Shubert Organization
Writer: Gerald Sibleyras
Translator: Tom Stoppard
Director: Thea Sharrock
Set designer: Robert Jones
Lighting designer: Howard Harrison
Sound designer: Jonathan Burke
Henri: Len Cariou
Gustave: George Segal
Philippe: Richard Benjamin