On Thursday, 5 March, a friend and I went over to the Clurman on Theatre Row to catch the New York première of Heroes, the latest European import. (It's French, via London and Tom Stoppard, who translated.) The play, by 48-year-old writer Gérald Sibleyras, had been a hit in Paris, where it was nominated for several Molière awards (including Best Author) in 2003, and London, where it played two years later and won the '06 Olivier for the Best New Comedy. Its Los Angeles production (the U.S. preem, staged by the original London director, Thea Sharrock, with a cast of Len Cariou, George Segal, and Richard Benjamin) was also a popular success in 2007. (There have also been productions in Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay, and Germany.) Now its New York production is being presented by the Keen Company, one of the smaller rep companies here, under the direction its artistic director, Carl Forsman. In the roles of the three WWI vets--the play is set in 1959 at an old-soldiers' home in France--are John Cullum as Henri, Ron Holgate as Gustave, and Jonathan Hogan as Philippe. (Holgate replaced Tony Roberts who dropped out of rehearsals at the end of January "due to personal matters,” according to the company's announcement.) Holgate and Cullum, as you all may know, are principally musical stars, though Cullum has done considerable straight theater, too. (Cullum and Holgate are also both in their 70s, close to the right age for the characters. I was surprised to find that Hogan is younger than I am--he's only 57. If the character were that age, he'd have been 12 when WWI began in Europe! Hogan looks older, of course--and I had no idea until I checked out his credentials when I got home later.)
The original French title is Le Vent des peupliers, which translates literally as "The Wind in the Poplars." Stoppard (and, I assume, the London producers) decided this was too similar to The Wind in the Willows (to which the French play bears absolutely no resemblance) and since Stoppard's choice, Veterans, was already taken (in 1972, by Charles Wood), it became Heroes. (I assume someone also thought of Soldiers, used in 1967 by Rolf Hochhuth. I don't get most of this, really: titles can't be copyrighted so there's no bar to using one again, and many plays over the years have had titles the same as or similar to previous ones. There are at least four movies and a play, all unrelated, called King of Hearts--plus one musical play based on one of the movies; no one cares. Someone was being prissy, I think.) Nonetheless, in the end, Heroes is no more appropriate as a title than any of the others since the play's not about heroism. (Hmmm . . . Not about Heroes. No, wait--Stephen MacDonald used that one already, too. Bad luck!)
Okay, enough nonsense. (But this is a comedy, isn't it? Well, never mind . . . .) Anyway, the play's a sit-com about three old vets living in a home run by nuns. (Hey! There's a title: Vets. No, I guess someone'd object it'll make people think the play's about animal doctors.) They're essentially waiting to die (or, as Philippe believes, for the head nun to knock them off when their birthdays conflict with another's on the same date) as they plan a new assault--a trip to a stand of poplar trees on a hill in the distance beyond the town cemetery. The three are taken by the trees' swaying in the wind (hence the original title) despite their observation that "here not a breath." (No breath of wind--or, perhaps, of life.) Sibleyras calls Heroes a play "about the universal desire to escape the confines of life," a condition, I think, that is symbolized here by the infirmities each man suffers: Henri, who walks with a cane, has a bum leg from his war and is terribly nearsighted; Philippe has fainting spells from shrapnel still lodged in his head, sometimes feels that he's on a rolling ship, and thinks a stone statue of a dog on the terrace moves; Gustave, who seems perfectly sturdy at first, if a little arrogant (Miles Gloriosus and Richard Henry Lee--the roles he played in Forum and 1776--return!), until we watch as he increasingly treats the stone dog as if it were alive. Gustave is also afraid to go beyond the walls of the home, even to walk in the grounds; despite his bluster, he's terrified of having to engage other people than his two comrades. Yet, we see that the men aren't physically weak: Henri pulls the stone statue of a dog, which they estimate to weigh 200 pounds, several feet out of the way and Gustave carries Philippe piggyback in a test for crossing a stream because Philippe can't swim.
Stoppard's translation is fine: unobtrusive and perfectly clear and straightforward. (He apparently worked with Sibleyras in attendance, consulting with the French playwright regularly.) I don't know if the script has been further adjusted for American audiences, but there didn't seem to be many Britishisms, if any at all. In fact, I didn't find myself paying very close attention to the text-as-text, so I have to say that Stoppard rendered a perfectly playable, unselfconscious English version. (French plays are often awkward when rendered into English. Even the popular Molière can be very Gallic in translation, and more contemporary playwrights are often either not produced here or have great difficulty in crossing over.) Stoppard, of course, doesn't just translate, he adapts somewhat, so it is an accomplishment in itself that his translation doesn't call attention to itself. He didn't, for instance, turn Heroes into a Stoppard play. (Stoppard, with Sibleyras's acquiescence, did one thing the original playwright couldn't do in Paris: he shortened the play, which now runs 90 minutes.)
The vets are distinctly different from one another, which makes the roles plum acting parts for (ahem) older actors. Henri, who is the most reasonable of the three, is a practical man and a genial one, a proud son of the middle class. (When we learn this factoid, Henri tells Gustave he is the son of a pharmacist. That's not a profession frequently invoked in plays as far as I can think of--with the notable exception of the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet--but this is the second character in a recent batch of plays whose father was a pharmacist: Peg, Kathleen Turner's character in Charles Busch’s Third Story, reveals she is also the child of a pharmacist. That probably isn't terribly significant, of course, except for one tiny matter: I am the grandson of a pharmacist--so I pick up on these things!) Henri, who's been in residence at the home for 25 years, is the least interesting of the three, but he's the mortar that hold the trio together--or prevents it from flying apart. His infirmities are all physical, though they make him cautious and reticent. He goes for walks--his "constitutional"--around the grounds, and even ventures beyond the perimeter wall of the home to walk into the village (auspiciously, past the cemetery) where he's delighted by the discovery in the town of a school for girls; he even singles one pubescent pupil out to describe to his friends--though he would never actually approach her! Cullum portrays Henri as soft-spoken and moderate in speech and manner; he is the peacemaker among all the parties, trying not to rock the boat or offend anyone unnecessarily. When one of the three--usually Gustave--comes up with a ridiculous idea, Henri points out the impracticality of the notion. (Henri keeps reminding Gustave, for instance, that the dog on the terrace is a statue.) But for some reason, Cullum had considerable trouble with his lines, though the show was scheduled to open in three days. (Possibly this was because Cullum, in an unusual bit of New York casting, is still performing east of Theatre Row in August: Osage County at Broadway's Music Box Theatre on 45th Street. This is also probably the reason the curtain for Heroes was at 8:30 p.m.; I saw Cullum arriving at 8:05 while I was waiting for Diana in the Clurman's small lobby).
Philippe, Henri's companion for 10 years, is almost a non-entity much of the time--he's unable to take sides in any argument and he switches positions from that of Henri to that of Gustave or vice versa depending on who spoke last. He's most passionate about his conviction that Sister Madeleine is letting residents die according to their birthdays. While the men all celebrate the birthdays of their fellow vets--an 85-year-old is having his cake the evening on which the play opens--there never are two birthdays on the same date, Philippe observes. Sister Madeleine won't allow it. If two men have the same birthday, she holds back the meds of one of them, essentially permitting him to die to avoid the conflict. At the end of the play, a new resident arrives (the 85-year-old from the first scene having killed himself the next morning), and Philippe is aghast to learn the new man has the same birthday as he--12 February. (I don't suppose it's significant that this is also the birthday of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.) As the new man is in robust health and Philippe suffers from blackouts and other disabilities because of his war injury, he's certain he's next for the sister's elimination. He won't act, of course; he'll just wait in fear for the inevitable. With his doughy appearance and frizzy, but thinning, white hair (I said he looks older than he is), Hogan embodied Philippe convincingly. (I can imagine Richard. Benjamin being a much more mannered Philippe, though I suspect that could work well, too.)
The newcomer who turned the pair into a trio (or, as he has it, a quartet . . . counting the dog!) six months earlier is Gustave, the bluff, cocksure ex-solder. As proud of his common roots as Henri is, Gustave is proud to be a member of the aristocracy. (1959 was the dawn of the Fifth Republic in France, the de Gaul era. The aristocracy by then, of course, was of little importance; but in the WWI period, it would still have been socially significant.) Holgate's stentorian baritone--I can still hear him singing "My name is Richard Henry Lee, Virginia is my home . . . .")--is perfect for Gustave, who could be the (semi-)modern version of the braggart soldier on which Miles Gloriosus was based. The actor also has a full head of perfectly coiffed white, white hair and an equally white (and immaculately trimmed) mustache and goatee--the only man of the three with facial hair. He's certainly an imposing figure (Holgate's 6'3") and stands almost ramrod straight--an old soldier to the hilt. But Gustave's afraid to leave not just the grounds, but the terrace on which the three meet daily or his room, where he retires immediately after eating his meals. He associates with no one but his two friends, even alienating the nuns--he socked Sister Madeleine one day, for no apparent reason except "to show her who's boss." When Henri finally convinces Gustave to walk into the village with him, to see the young object of his fantasy, he goes, but is so afraid of an encounter he barely nods to the girl from a great distance away. (Before they left on this jaunt, Gustave even practices his potential greeting several times.) Nonetheless, it is Gustave who comes up with the plan to make a break for freedom--his original idea is to sail for French Indochina (not really a good place to go in 1959, of course!)--and the three men start to plan their "assault" on the poplars on the hill. (This is a compromise between Gustave's first suggestion and Henri's proposal of a picnic just beyond the perimeter walls.) Gustave also reads Philippe's letters from his sister, which Philippe gives him unread because he can't stand his brother-in-law. Gustave even answers the letters--in his own name, which the sister takes as just another sign of Philippe's mental deterioration--and gets involved at long distance in the family affairs. He neglects to tell Philippe, however, that his sister had died recently, though Gustave tried to arrange the funeral until he fell out with that same brother-in-law. Unable to establish or maintain close-in relationships (he was married back in 1906, but his wife left him for a laborer, much to his embarrassment), he adopts Philippe's family in secret and at arm's length. Holgate's whole demeanor and appearance contradicts this characteristic, which makes it all the more powerful as it emerges. (I just can't see Tony Roberts in this role, which may be why he left the production. I take "personal reasons" as a euphemism for "artistic differences" and my guess is that Roberts decided he was miscast and wasn't right for the part. I can see him doing either Philippe or Henri, but Gustave seems wrong for him.)
(A conjecture about "Sister Madeleine": I don't know if this is at all significant--though the fact that it occurs to me means that it is, at least in my apprehension--but since the play is in part about memory, especially recalled distant memories, the fact that the chief personage of the residence, though we never meet her in person, is named after the little cake that brought forth the flood of recollections for Proust's narrator in A la recherche du temps perdu seems moderately important, and almost certainly intentional, assuming Sibleyras has a literary bent.)
The play's setting is restricted to the back terrace of the home--the larger front terrace is the domain of the rest of the residents--and the men's activities beyond the terrace are all related in expository dialogue. This is also how we learn of other residents of the home; there are no other cast members than the three old vets. There are small actions they perform on stage, but most of the play is conversation. Sibleyras and Forsman have managed to keep the play engaging, though sometimes it's obvious that movement for movement's sake has been added to prevent the performance from becoming static. The Clurman has a pretty small stage anyway, and the terrace, designed by Beowulf Boritt and lit by Josh Bradford, is further confined by an ivy-covered wall in the rear and on stage right (stage left is blacks). There are a couple of green metal chairs, a stone bench, some shrubbery . . . and the stone dog, of course. The poplar stand is out over our heads (the actors frequently have to repeat the well-known fourth-wall exercise). This little plot is the refuge the vets control and protect. The other residents may enjoy the larger front terrace, but the three have their own, virtually private base. When they learn that construction will temporarily close the larger terrace, Henri explains that that will inevitably lead to a displacement of the others to their redoubt. This eventually--though not immediately or directly--leads to the escape they plan. The most action that takes place on stage is connected with the planning and preparations for the assault on the poplar stand. As the trek will require several days, two river crossings, and a climb, the men practice lashing themselves together (using a convenient fire hose as a substitute for the rope) and Henri liberates several excellent blankets. (They keep a journal of the proceedings, in which each of them is expected to make entries. Gustave reveals that he has been making notations on behalf of the dog as well! You see, he plans to take the 200-pound statue along, too.) I guess it goes without saying, that the departure never actually happens--but while they are making plans, the old soldiers are once again alive and active.
Heroes, which closes on 12 April, is hardly a laugh riot under any circumstances. The humor, after all, comes from such innately hilarious conditions as Philippe's (increasingly frequent) fainting spells and other symptoms of his dementia, the deaths of other residents (one of Philippe’s spells occurs at the suicide’s funeral and Philippe tumbles into the man’s grave!), Gustave's conviction that the stone dog is real, the men's inability to leave the grounds, and other details that, elsewhere, would be pitiful. As it is, despite the worldwide success of this comedy, I found the proceedings more amusing than funny. My companion laughed a lot but I think she enjoyed it more because our last several shows were so disappointing than because the play was inherently funny. I found myself chuckling often enough, but overall, I don't think that the play is worth all the attention it has received from all over the world (aside from the English, Spanish, and German translations, Heroes has also been rendered into Russian and Polish). It is a slight piece, and even though the acting was fine--aside from whatever line problems Cullum was suffering--the characters are just too shallow to make them really interesting or empathetic. (At the preview I saw, the actors still seemed to be working very hard to make something of their roles, although maybe I was projecting.) The most significant failing, in my judgment, is the lack of a clear point. If all Sibleyras wants to say is that old age can be shitty . . . well, don't we know that already? If he's trying to tell us that old age can be funny, then I have to say that's a bit tacky as a play subject (what's next: a play showing how funny cripples are?)--and isn't that what The Golden Girls on TV was all about 20 years ago? There is something embedded in the script about mutual support and respect despite differences of personality and approach to life, but it didn't seem to have been stressed in the Keen Company production. As a portrait of loneliness, The Gin Game did it better; David Storey's Home was a harder-hitting exploration of that old-age affliction. (I think that the silly debate over an English title emblemizes this problem--if there had been a stronger theme, the title would probably have been self-evident.) In the end, then, though there is a genuine sweetness in the play, it comes out lightweight: enjoyable but inconsequential.
The New York Times ran a review of Heroes on Monday, 9 March; Wilborn Hampton gave it a pretty wan (and short) appraisal. I think he was pretty accurate--and I also think that the fact that Hampton (third string) was reviewing and not Isherwood (second string, and the usual Off-Broadway critic) or Brantley (first string) suggests that the editors didn't think Heroes was worth a lot of coverage. I had a look on line and found the Daily News coverage on the 10th--it was poor--but couldn't find reviews in the Post or Newsday; the Voice came out on the 18th with a very brief, mostly negative notice and the New Yorker only ran a capsule review in “The Theatre” column on the 23rd. I took a look on line at reviews from L.A., London, and Sidney (and one from New Zealand) and most were mild to good--the Variety notice for L.A. was the weakest (though its New York notice was positive for the play, less so for the production). The L.A. Times was also middling. This all suggests to me that the play has more appeal to theater artists--actors and directors--than critics. I can't explain all those prizes and nominations, except to ask what the competition was.
I am disturbed, by the way, that so many of the reviews and articles covering this play from London to Sydney to Wellington, N.Z., to L.A. invoke Beckett and Godot. (Yasmina Reza's Art also gets mentioned, but that's only because both plays are French and have a cast of three men.) Okay, Henri, Gustave, and Philippe are waiting, and the play is about what they do while they wait--but beyond that, the resemblance to Becket and his masterpiece (and, yes, I say it's a masterpiece) is tenuous and fleeting. Heroes doesn't come within a mile of Godot and Sibleyras, even in Stoppard's translation, doesn't match Beckett's poetry, earthiness, or truthfulness. Or, I must add, his spareness. Some critics used to complain that Tennessee Williams was too blatant in his symbolism; well, everything you need to interpret Heroes is in Sibleyras's script, right out in the open. Williams, I think, was able to overshadow this characteristic, if it's a failing or not, by the lyricism of his language and the utter humanity of his characters. Sibleyras doesn't accomplish this, and he doesn't manage Beckett's more intellectual and visceral symbolism, either. The comparison, to borrow from another better writer, is "odorous."