nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 4, 2009
Heroes—which is Tom Stoppard's translation of a French play called Le Vent des Peupliers, written in 2003 by Gérald Sibleyras—tells the story of three old men, veterans of World War I, who live together in an old soldier's home. It is 1959, 40 years after the Treaty of Versailles. Henri has been here for 25 years; he has a bum leg and walks with a cane—but at least he does walk (on daily "constitutionals" that take him off the grounds of the institution). Philippe has lived here for ten years. He still carries some shrapnel in his head, which has made him prone to fainting spells and perhaps also has contributed to his theory (delusion?) that the nun in charge of the home is trying to kill some of the inmates. Gustave is a new arrival, here just six months or so, but in that time he has never left the grounds and almost never leaves his room except for meals and to fraternize with these two comrades.
I thought at first that the three men had known each other in the war, but that does not seem to be the case. Why it is that they have banded together on a terrace that they think of as their exclusive property is not made clear. They speak of other veterans who live in this place with them, but we never see them; I wondered if anyone else really does live there.
I think my mind went in that particular direction because Heroes feels very much in the mold of Waiting for Godot, Beckett's famous exploration of (among other subjects) how we can't bear to be together but also can't bear to be alone. These three old soldiers bicker endlessly about nothing; they pair up two against one in shifting formations. They spin a pipe dream about heading up some faraway hill to a stand of poplar trees that almost certainly doesn't exist.
Gustave has taken for a pet the stone statue of a dog who shares the terrace with them.
What troubles me about Keen Company's production of Heroes (a New York premiere) is that the depths of this absurdism, and its purpose, is almost entirely subsumed by director Carl Forsman's heavy-handed naturalistic staging of the play. There's no magic here, no sparkle; just a rather slow-moving story of three pathetic old men sniping at one another.
Things may improve: at the performance reviewed, all three actors (John Cullum as Henri, Jonathan Hogan as Philippe, and Ron Holgate as Gustave) seemed to still be learning their lines; perhaps once they've got them all down, they'll relax into more interesting and complex characterizations. These three solid theatre veterans are nevertheless good company for us on stage. Holgate, in particular, is in fine form, with a full head of white hair that makes him the envy of a much younger (but balder) fellow like myself; his rich baritone is also in evidence, sounding as vibrant as it did when he sang about being Richard Henry Lee in 1776 four decades ago.
But none of these excellent actors conjures anything essential or universal in their roles. Heroes stagnates as a result; it simply doesn't seem to have much of a point beyond the melancholy tale it tells.
It's possible, by the way, that some of the trouble is in Stoppard's translation, which switches the play's title from "The Wind in the Poplars," which has a nice poetic ring, to Heroes, which feels like a commentary on a thing not requiring comment.