EmptyRoundabout at Laura Pels Theatre, New York
Through Aug. 19
War is hell, but personal bravery never goes out of style. That is the thrust of actor Stephen Lang's one-man play "Beyond Glory," which is having its New York premiere off-Broadway at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre. Adapted by Lang from Larry Smith's 2003 oral history and performed by Lang, the show is an affecting, if limited, portrayal of eight men who received the Medal of Honor for valor in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Alone on a sleek, circular stage and backed on occasion by John Boesche's discreet projections, Lang transforms from one hero to another, changing his voice, accent and stance and dipping into a trunk to change his shirt or jacket. A strapping, muscular performer, Lang is totally credible as the various soldiers whose words he makes his own.
But he is most vital as 97-year-old John William Finn, who, on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, was about to make love to his wife when, with a stroke of exceedingly bad timing, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Angry and, well, frustrated, Finn put on his clothes and rushed to a Navy airfield, where he manned a .30-caliber machine gun and for 2 1⁄2 hours fired that weapon at every Japanese bomber he saw.
Lang makes the most of Finn's combination of humor and macho irritation, and under the restrained direction of Robert Falls ("Talk Radio"), the actor smoothly transitions out of one man's story and into the next. After Finn, Lang is most convincing as sturdy, dignified James Stockdale, who survived 7 1⁄2 years as a POW in Vietnam, a courageous feat that probably led presidential hopeful Ross Perot to make Stockdale his running mate in 1992.
But ultimately the 80 minutes of material in "Beyond Glory" is limiting. Despite the play's title, Lang is more interested in writing the glory part of war than exploring the implications of "beyond." To be sure, the men's words touch on the brutal and the unpleasant. Stockdale's descriptions of being tortured, and of injuring himself so that the North Vietnamese could not display him as a submissive traitor, are excruciating.
Vernon Baker, a black soldier who fought in WWII, did not receive the medal he deserved until more than 50 years later. But there is the sense in "Beyond Glory" that, despite adversity, heroes come out all right in the end and there is nothing so wonderful as courage in the field. It's an uplifting message, but a narrow one.
Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company
Playwright: Stephen Lang
Adapted from book by: Larry Smith
Director: Robert Falls
Set designer: Tony Cisek
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designer: Dan Covey
Sound designer: Cecil Averett
Original music: Robert Kessler, Ethan Neuburg
Projection design: John Boesche
Voices of the Military: John Bedford Lloyd, Matt Sincell, Anne Twomey