"A Few Good Men," Aaron Sorkin's fictional drama about a military coverup, has been given a sizzlingly good production - expertly designed and directed, beautifully acted - and it's enormously entertaining.
The polish with which it has been mounted reminded me that Broadway was once a fully professional community, able to lavish extraordinary expertise on any given script and thus nurture new writers. Everything was done with such finesse it wasn't until after you left the theater that you realized the play itself wasn't so fine. In the case of "Good Men" I had my doubts even before I left.
While you're watching the play, you're aware of Sorkin's gift for sharp banter, the skillful way he builds his story and his ability to shape strong confrontations. The only question you have is, What is this really about?
Ostensibly, it's a courtroom drama in which some concerned young lawyers are pitted against a military establishment wrapping itself in God and country to hide its inhumanity. But in order to be a real courtroom drama, both sides must be equal. (That's why "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" still works.) In this case the military higher-ups are seen as God-fearing, flag-waving buffoons. In order to be real theater there have to be ideas (this was once true even of film); the narrow-mindedness of militarists does not constitute one.
What you do get are powerful performances - particularly by Tom Hulce as a coasting young lawyer who comes into his own on this case; Mark Nelson as his schleppy, funny colleague; Megan Gallagher as the woman who constantly has to prod them into action, and Clark Gregg as their wily and charming opponent. Stephen Lang and Ted Marcoux have astonishing intensity, but they constantly project their contempt for their militaristic characters.
Paul Butler conveys great authority as a judge, Robert Hogan genuine humanity as a guilty soldier, Victor Love and Michael Dolan convincing pathos as two pawns and Geoffrey Nauffts amusing confusion as a dumb witness.
Don Scardino's direction captures the cinematic quality of the script superbly, punctuating its episodes with shrewd theatricality. The question is: Are terrific, live performances in a skillful but shallow play worth paying Broadway prices for?
Never underestimate the theater's potential for surprise. If, like myself, you had virtually written off Broadway's capacity to attract, acquire and stage a good old-fashioned, strictly commercial comedy melodrama - the kind of play that was once its daily bread and butter - think again.
"A Few Good Men," which opened last night at the Music Box Theater, is a triumphant example of a now fashionably outmoded courtroom drama - "A Caine Mutiny Court Martial" sort of play positively bouncing into the '80s - that sizzles with fun and entertainment.
The play has been sharply staged by Don Scardino, and surrounds a number of beautifully judged crowd-pleasing performances from Megan Gallagher, Mark Nelson, Clark Gregg and, particularly, Stephen Lang and the show's most engaging star, Tom Hulce, both of whom are brilliant.
"A Few Good Men" - the title, of course, is a reference to the U.S. Marine Corps - provides an evening of sheer delight, unadulterated by the need for serious thought, uncomplicated by considerations of higher dramatic sensibility.
Here is that theatrical jewel - once the mainstay of Broadway for season after season - the first-rate, and don't misread me here, second-rate play. And I am not being patronizing, I am being accurate.
The young playwright, Aaron Sorkin, hits every right note in a play that, were it not for the occasional salty vulgarity in its language, could have been born yesterday, and aesthetically was.
The secret is that it lives today. Its dialogue is fresh, cute and new-minted. Its situation - the good old courtroom, the opposing lawyers and a theme fringing on, if not precisely dealing with, matters of moral choice - basically familiar, but adroitly updated and conditioned to our own time and socio-political climate.
That situation is the trial of two young Marines for their complicity in the death of a fellow Marine while they were all serving in the nowadays little-remembered hot spot of that U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay in Castro's Cuba. The time is 1986.
How did the boy die? Who was really responsible for his death? The two Marines are charged with murder, and a young lawyer (Hulce), serving some service time following a Naval scholarship to Harvard Law School, is designated to defend them.
This seemingly lightweight son, more interested in softball games than hardball law, of a heavyweight father, apparently once a legendary trial lawyer, seems to have been selected by the Navy more for his ability to plea-bargain than anything else. The matter needs to be hushed up.
Hulce heads a defense team consisting of a friendly colleague (Nelson) basically along for the ride and to play second banana, and a female superior officer (Gallagher) who interferes charmingly but ineffectually - yes, the play is even old-fashioned enough to embrace sexist stereotypes!
Opposing them are the Prosecuting Counsel (Gregg), who could have stepped out of "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" and probably did, and the Marines' Commanding Officer, a young hotshot Colonel (Lang), who is typecast as a neat amalgam of Captain Queeg and a heavily fictionalized Oliver North.
The main questions of death and responsibility figure around some Marine honor code - called "code red" - which, according to the playwright, appears to be a savage form of hazing-like self-imposed discipline that Marine corps personnel apply to such fellow Marines they feel fail to meet Marine standards.
The Marine Corps is understandably scared at the prospect of some of the more brutal aspects of this informal "code red" procedure receiving publicity - and therein hangs the play.
As we realize from the beginning, the two accused Marines, although inadvertently guilty of the killing, were in fact complying with orders, and are the willing fall guys for a cover-up intended to maintain Marine honor.
The Perry Mason-style complexities of the plot are at times simplistic, and the playwright has permitted himself unlimited license in matters of court procedures and credible behavior.
So what! It's only a play, and it works wonderfully from its initial feints and parries, down to its smashing technical knockout and final aftermath.
Playwright Sorkin maintains the suspense like the old pro he isn't, messing around (right to the end) with a possible romantic entanglement between the tousled Hulce and the beautifully band-boxed Gallagher, while letting characters collapse meaningfully on the witness stand as they gratifyingly self-incriminate and self-destruct.
Director Scardino keeps this long play (it is nearly three hours - almost nipping into union overtime with an enormous cast, the one place where the playwright reveals his inexperience!) spinning along at a breakneck pace, very reasonably never giving you a moment to think about its likelihood.
And the performances are joys indeed. Hulce, with his radiant potato face and inner glow of worldly amusement, is a joy, and has never been better or more magnetic.
Lang is perfectly and outrageously corny - but so on the button for the role and the play - as the crazy, but oddly appealing, Marine colonel, while Gallagher is all cool charm as a Naval Girl Friday, and all the others - including the dour accused, Victor Love and Michael Dolan - fit into the artfully contrived jigsaw with total aplomb.
What a pleasure to see such unforced professionalism on all counts - actually on a Hollywood level we don't often encounter nowadays in the theater. Broadway would be a far happier place with a few more good plays like "A Few Good Men."
Even if the stage were not a battleground of tables and chairs in gun-metal gray, it wouldn't take long to recognize the terrain in ''A Few Good Men,'' Broadway's new play about a court-martial. ''It's an open-and-shut case,'' goes an early line. ''I suspect there's more to this case than what's reported in the division report,'' goes another. The cast of antagonists includes a sarcastic Navy defense attorney who doesn't want to be a hero (Tom Hulce), a tightly wound commanding officer who insists on being one (Stephen Lang) and some cowed enlisted men caught in the crossfire. Let the scene change, and more than a few good marching men in crew cuts and khaki will sound off, ''One, two, three-four!''
So pronounced is the deja vu at the Music Box that one can only assume that the author, Aaron Sorkin, is invoking ''The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial'' and its brethren intentionally. And why not? It's reassuring to watch familiar conventions being given a new workout. The Music Box Theater, after all, is where an even older genre of boulevard drama was made fun again in ''Sleuth'' and ''Deathtrap.'' When the evidence of a ''conspiracy to commit murder'' piles up in the opening hour of ''A Few Good Men'' - and when that evidence is buttressed by some very good acting under the direction of Don Scardino - one sits back in confidence that Mr. Sorkin is laying land mines for 10 o'clock explosions.
But it's nearly 11 when the play ends, and Mr. Sorkin never does reward one's expectations. ''A Few Good Men'' is too predictable to satisfy as courtroom entertainment, and its attempts to tie its plot to some larger moral issues, in the manner of Charles Fuller's ''Soldier's Play,'' are lightweight. The evening's message is: ''You don't need to wear a patch on your arm to have honor.'' There is a higher code than the Marine code, and there are times when good soldiers must disobey orders. If that lesson isn't news, at least it might have been made compelling. But despite passing allusions to Nuremberg and My Lai, ''A Few Good Men'' doesn't argue its unarguable point in the gripping context of history.
Mr. Sorkin's talky case is instead merely a generic one about bullying and conformity in the barracks of the peacetime Marines. Though the play's fictional crime was committed in 1986 at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the time and place seem irrelevant. The co-defendants are accused of overdoing the unofficial punishment of an unpopular private. The most pressing question raised by their trial is whether they might be covering up for higher-ups.
While it is announced that the Marine Corps itself is on trial, the story turns on much narrower grounds. The why-and-whodunit solutions prove unsurprising, and to reach them the author force-feeds laborious clues into the action, some errant luggage tags among them. For a subplot, Mr. Sorkin charts the slowly blossoming alliance of three ill-matched defense lawyers, each of whom comes with a single psychological characteristic whose cause (a domineering father, for instance) may also be affixed like a luggage tag.
Since one of the trio is a woman, a crusading special investigator played by Megan Gallagher, there might have been a love triangle within the defense team. But that possibility for drama is foreclosed early, when one of her male colleagues (Mark Nelson) is revealed to be a devoted new dad. This leaves any possible romantic activity to Mr. Hulce, who is schematically presented as Ms. Gallagher's contentious opposite: as he is afraid to fight a serious case, so she loves to fight yet doesn't know how to win. They're made for each other, of course, but they are the last people in the theater to figure that out.
Despite the handicap of a Hollywood coiffure, Mr. Hulce draws on his considerable stores of humor and sensitivity to portray his character's fast conversion from arrogant goof-off to daredevil legal-eagle. Ms. Gallagher forcefully sounds her one note of two-fistedness, and the impassioned Mr. Nelson professionally snaps Mr. Sorkin's one-liners, some of which are so redolent of show business they seem to have wandered in from a Johnny Carson monologue instead of ''Mister Roberts.''
No less fine are such supporting players as Victor Love and Michael Dolan as the stoical defendants, Clark Gregg as a legal defender of the military faith, Paul Butler as a no-nonsense judge and Geoffrey Nauffts as the witness inevitably called upon to provide comic relief in Act II. In a class by himself is Mr. Lang, the base commander, whose spectacular performance as a feral Vietnam veteran in Steve Tesich's ''Speed of Darkness'' in Chicago this year is matched here by his mesmerizing turn as a post-Vietnam military strongman with a smile and tongue as fierce as his muscles.
For all Mr. Scardino's accomplished direction of actors, his staging makes hokey use of tacky lightning-and-thunder effects to try to simulate the riveting suspense missing in the plot. One result is to make ''A Few Good Men'' look dated, and that impression is compounded by a script that has been unluckily ambushed by current events. ''We live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns,'' says Mr. Lang at one point - a perfectly plausible statement for his character to make in 1986. But to an audience in November 1989, the historical imperatives underlying ''A Few Good Men'' may seem almost as ancient as its courtroom theatrics.