Waiting for Godot, or for Stoppard?

Stoppard’s Heroes’ at the Lantern (2nd review)

3 minute read
Whyte (left), Kern: Indochina, here we come.
Whyte (left), Kern: Indochina, here we come.
The Lantern Theater's final production of the 2012-13 season is kind of a cross between Waiting for Godot and Grumpy Old Men. Heroes is written by the French playwright Gerald Sibleyras and adapted into English by Tom Stoppard, who knows something about riffing off of Samuel Beckett.

The action, set in 1959, focuses on three French World War I veterans in a Catholic old soldiers' home, where they spend their days shuttling between their rooms, dinner and the terrace where they loll around and gaze at a distant stand of poplar trees. (The French play translates to the The Wind in the Poplars, which was thought too much like The Wind in the Willows for English language audiences; hence the play's bland title.)

Peter DeLaurier plays Henri, the cheeriest of the bunch, who hobbles around on a battle-wounded leg and generally tries to make the best of things. Mal Whyte is Philippe, who took a piece of shrapnel in the brain and blacks out frequently as a result. The relatively newly arrived Gustave (Dan Kern) is "an old Indochina hand" and the least obviously war-damaged. He's also clearly the weirdest of the trio: Henri describes Gustave as "tolerably deranged."

Bad timing

The plot, such as it is, focuses on their decision to escape the confines of the sanitorium and head for French Indochina, better known today as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. (Henri, it should be noted, takes daily "constitutionals" to the village, so the men are hardly confined against their will.) Historically, the escapade is poorly timed, considering that the French had just finished losing a war there, although this fact is not referenced. But the plan is scuttled for reasons more mundane than geopolitical. Henri's leg is bad and Philippe can't last a scene without passing out.

Given these restraints, they fall back on a plan to form an expeditionary force and advance towards the distant poplars. This strategy proves equally far-fetched, especially because Gustave keenly insists upon bringing along the 200-pound dog statue that shares their terrace.

Heroes is highly enjoyable. The audience was in stitches throughout the performance. But the intellectual fireworks that accompany most Stoppard scripts are largely absent here. Not much in Heroes will make you think. The play is denuded of historical or national specificity, although perhaps that's been lost in translation. The dialogue is given a patina of military jargon and vague references to The War, but with a few superficial changes it could just as easily be set in a Wisconsin old folks' home in 1993.

Friends and family

All three men are very likable, and all three actors play them well. Kern's performance is the most enjoyable, largely because the script gives Gustave the most opportunity to be dynamic and witty. DeLaurier is given the thankless task of playing the straight man and is occasionally boring as a result. Each of the characters gets his share of fun dialogue. The problem is that Heroes doesn't offer much beyond that.

None of these titular heroes seem to have much in the way of family or friends beyond the terrace (other than a sister of Philippe, who mostly serves as the butt of jokes until she serves as an unconvincing bit of pathos). The men's wartime experiences are barely discussed, and the characters aren't granted much in the way of inner lives.

When we are asked to feel for these men, the emotions just don't come. We barely know who they are beyond each man's capsule review: the nice one, the rambunctious one and the one who passes out a lot.♦

To read another review by Marshall A. Ledger, click here.
To read a related commentary by Alaina Mabaso, click here.

What, When, Where

Heroes. By Tom Stoppard, adapted from Le Vent des Peupliers, by Gérald Sibleyras; M. Craig Getting directed. Lantern Theater production through June 16, 2013 at St. Stephen’s Theatre, 923 Ludlow St. (215) 829-0395 or www.lanterntheater.org.

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