Gerald Sibleyras’ award-winning Le Vent des Peupliers (The Wind in the Poplars) was a smash hit when it debuted in 2003 at the Theatre Montparnasse, going on to play to crescendos of appreciative applause throughout Europe. Last year, the play surfaced in the West End as Heroes, translated from the French by none other than Tom Stoppard, helmed by hot London stage director Thea Sharrock, and winning the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.
Luckily for Angelenos, Heroes now makes its US debut right here at the Geffen, once again directed by Sharrock but replacing the original production’s stalwart Scottish actor Ken Stott and British stage and film stars John Hurt and Richard Griffiths (currently appearing in London opposite Harry Potter’s weenie in Sharrock’s staging of Equus) with three of our own equally stalwart theatrical royals: Len Cariou, George Segal, and Richard Benjamin.
Heroes takes place in 1959 on the lushly verdant terrace of a Parisian retirement home populated by French World War I veterans (Robert Jones’ horticulturally overgrown set design and Howard Harrison’s sunsets beautifully help create the properly wistful mood), a too-quiet place where three aging and sufficiently crusty military retirees have been put out to pasture to reminisce their twilight years away. Gustave (played with curmudgeonly zeal by Segal) is the most dissatisfied with his lot in life, describing the agenda of their repetitious days-in-waiting as nothing but “room, terrace, tepid soup, beddy-bye.”
Gustave has become the self-acknowledged leader of the trio, perhaps because he’s a decorated war hero and not afraid to grumble aloud about how dissatisfied he is with the old soldiers’ lot in life—at least in the protection of the overlooked terrace and with only the other two men and a silent stone statue of a dog to hear his rantings. Gustave’s uses his ability to strategize in battle to decide that he and his friends must get the hell out of their stagnant situation, suggesting a daring escape to Indochina when, in fact, his own ever-increasing agoraphobia makes him reluctant to even venture off the grounds of the facility.
Henri (a lovable Cariou), the realist of the group, suggests instead of a highly improbable and romanticized trek across the world, the three comrades simply take off to the poplar grove they gaze upon continuously at the horizon of their view and have a nice picnic, but even that may be too much for Philippe (the deliciously deadpanned Benjamin), who has a tendency to pass out at inopportune moments (waking with the rallying cry, “Take them from the rear, Captain! From the rear!”) while obsessing on the idea that the home’s ruling Gestapo-nun Sister Madeleine is out to do him no good.
I’m not sure exactly what’s missing here, especially when the script is translated by the wondrous Mr. Stoppard and one could not find three more glorious veteran performers than Cariou, Segal and Benjamin, all amazing actors (and the latter of whom makes a return to the stage obviously long overdue). Perhaps if the direction by Sharrock were a tad more stylized and a hint more farcical—especially when working with artists as versatile and gifted as these three longtime stars—the world of Heroes might not be quite as sluggish as it sometimes feels to be as presented here.
Still, this is a lovely, lovely piece of theatre which accomplishes what all great art sets out to do: make us think about what we’ve seen long after we’ve left the theatre. See, despite their wartime medals or claims of onetime class distinction, these sad and world-weary old geezers aren’t really Heroes as we identify and categorize that honor, yet they’re not anti-heroes by any means either because heroism, Sibleyras and Stoppard contend, is about the moment, not the individual. If these once vital but now hopelessly fragile men were heroic during a more glorious and glorified time in their lives, their current lot in life is a reminder that soldiers go to war because of duty, but leaders send them there because they’re so scarily disposable in the grand scheme of things.
Heroes plays through May 27 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood; for tickets, call 310.208.5454.