'Heroes' Doesn't Win the Battle
If a hero should be regarded as a model or ideal figure, than Gerald Sibleyras' Heroes is sorely lacking any such characters. This American premiere at the Geffen Playhouse sets out with the best of intentions, but sadly disappoints in its final form.
Following a successful run in London, director Thea Sharrock has followed her creation across the pond in hopes of finding success twice, yet this latest production seems to have been lost in translation, and as playwright Tom Stoppard provided the translation, it is all the more shameful.
With an extremely accomplished cast in hand, and having Stoppard's typically witty touch on the book, it is not hard to imagine what a promising work all involved imagined it could turn out to be. Such is not the case however, as the downfall of Heroes lies in the cornerstone of Stoppard's works – lengthy conversations full of philosophical notions – quickly emerging as mundane here.
Set in 1959 at a French soldier's home, three ailing gents spend their restless days on a terrace overlooking some apparently serene poplar tress (the original play is titled Le Vent des Peupliers). Not much occurs that is atypical of a retirement home, except for the veterans' rants and raves, plus a few blackouts thrown in for giggles.
On their own merits, the three leads, Len Cariou (Henri), Richard Benjamin (Philippe) and George Segal (Gustave) have the potential, as has been proven in many of their earlier works, to command the stage. Heroes however, shockingly elicits nothing more than mostly mindless banter for the thesps to chew on.
When last seen on the Geffen stage in All My Sons, Cariou wowed audiences with his ability to capture the disheartening essence of a tortured character, yet as Henri, a cane-wielding optimist longing for a refreshingly young romance from a nearby girls' school, Cariou mostly goes through the motions never truly bringing any compassion to Henri. In a role that was originated by Richard Griffiths at the Wyndham Theatre, Cariou is also lacking any type of British accent, which, for unknown reasons, can be said of all three actors.
Stoppard's translation is described in the production's program as giving "an elegant English luster to the French comedy." Perhaps that was the case in London, but without even a hint of British intonation, this American version lacks what Stoppard most likely set out to accomplish.
Segal, who has an enumerable list of screen and stage credits to his name, nearly phones in this performance as the snarky Gustave, unwilling to show any heartfelt emotions to his comrades. Though there is moments of humor as Segal goes for the laughs in his perfectly timed delivery, the relationship this character, the newest arrival of the bunch, is supposed to have with Henri and Philippe is unbelievable.
Rounding out the motley trio is Benjamin, as the often oblivious Philippe, who fares slightly better than the other actors in Heroes, as his moments of post traumatic stress disorder flashbacks earn a laugh or two.
That is not to say Heroes is without merit. There are sporadic moments of hilarious wit and banter found in Stoppard's work, and with the talented cast, many of those instances are played to comical perfection.
Sharrock was simply unable to inject her fresh British charm into this work, rather she tends to confuse with her choices of direction in the Geffen production. Had she simply chosen to go with a foreign accent of some sort, perhaps a sense of believability would have coursed through the play.
Where Heroes does succeed is in its technical prowess, with Robert Jones' set perfectly capturing a French countryside accented with serene lighting by Howard Harrison. Sound design is by Jonathan Burke.
Heroes runs through May 27 at the Geffen Playhouse, located at 10886 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood (adjacent to U.C.L.A.). Tickets range from $35 to $69 and can be purchased by calling 310-208-5454, online at www.GeffenPlayhouse.com or through Ticketmaster.
Photos by Michael Lamont.