War is hell, but the new production of R.C. Sherriff's World War I drama "Journey's End" is as heavenly as it is haunting.
Sherriff's 1928 drama, which opened last night at the Belasco, spans four days and depicts a group of British officers in France steeling for a major 1918 German attack. The men know it's coming and that survival odds are slim.
Sherriff based his play on his own tour of duty. His affection for the characters rings throughout this unsentimental revival, expertly directed by David Grindley, who helmed the play in London in 2004.
The action is talky and sometimes slow-going, especially during Act I, but anticipation is part of the fabric of the story. It's during these lulls, laced with small talk - about family, gardening, cricket, even "Alice in Wonderland" - that the men emerge as individuals, not mere types in countless war films.
The 12-actor cast rates praise from top to bottom. Hugh Dancy's charismatic and convincing portrait of 21-yearold Capt. Stanhope, who drinks to drown his battle fatigue and fears, anchors the production. Boyd Gaines has finally shed his boyishness and nails the avuncular 40-year-old Lt. Osborne, Stanhope's second in command, whose courage is matched by his compassion.
Jefferson Mays plays Pvt. Mason, the officers' cook, who lends humor by dishing out mystery meats and nasty tea but shows his mettle when the time comes. Newcomer Stark Sands makes a vivid impression as 18-year-old new recruit Raleigh, who hero-worshiped Stanhope at school and who learns too soon about the savagery of war.
The production's design matches the outstanding acting. Jonathan Fensom's uniforms look like the real deal, as does his authentically grim and cramped dugout. Jason Taylor's lighting - sometimes just a couple of flickering candles - adds immeasurably to the tension.
Sound designers don't often get shout-outs, but Gregory Clarke deserves one. The deafening and devastating cacophony he has created assaults your ears - and then your gut. You feel queasy, like you've been punched. A silent tableau follows (I won't spoil it with a description) that remind us of the terrible toll of war, and of its timelessness.
War is hell - and it's a different hell for different times and even different generations. The Flanders trenches in World War I – that first war to end wars - must have been muddy, bloody and infested with horrors.
R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 play "Journey's End," returning to Broadway Wednesday night at the Belasco Theatre, is a well-bred hymn to that sacrifice, and a beautifully crafted vehicle for over-the-top and through-the-barbed-wire acting that is genuinely moving because of its simple, slightly rose-colored sincerity.
Sherriff based this, his first produced play and by far his best, on his own experiences as a subaltern in France, a species of young British officer whose life expectancy was estimated at about two weeks.
Director David Grindly, a rising star of the British theater responsible for the play's acclaimed West End staging three years ago, has done a spectacular job.
The play's hero, Capt. Stanhope (Hugh Dancy), after three years of almost constant battle an alcoholic veteran at 21, is in charge of a British frontline battalion facing the opening of what proved the final, massive German offensive of the war.
Alongside him in his rat-trap of a trench are his second-in-command, the avuncular Lt. Osborne (Boyd Gaines), and an 18-year-old 2nd Lt. Raleigh (Stark Sands), on his first posting, who idolized Stanhope when they were at the same school.
The team of officers is completed by two 2nd lieutenants: fat, competent Trotter (John Ahlen), and Hibbert (Justin Blanchard), a putative coward possibly suffering from shell shock.
They are tended by a working-class enlisted man Pvt. Mason (Jefferson Mays), who is cook, waiter, general dogs body, and, when push comes to shove, rifleman. He is dryly humorous, and the Hollywood-style salt of the English earth.
The acting is truly remarkable - a terrific ensemble as fine as Broadway has seen in many a year. Dancy's whiskey-doused Stanhope, as nervy as a volcano, as taut as bowstring ready to twang, is a layered and complex picture of a war-drained leader, but all in the company go beyond the playwright's simplistics.
And the production is enormously helped by the splendidly atmospheric, all-but-tangible scenic design of Jonathan Fensom, the lighting of Jason Taylor and the sound design of Gregory Clarke.
The minutes contract and dilate, like wary eyes in shifting light, amid the time-bending silence that pervades the splendid revival of R. C. Sherriffs "Journey's End," which opened last night at the Belasco Theater. Set in the British trenches near the front line in St. Quentin, France, during World War I, David Grindley's acutely staged and acted production of this landmark drama from 1928 is filled with instances of soldiers checking their watches, asking the time, counting off days and hours and minutes.
No clock or chart, though, can begin to measure time as these men experience it. It is the period before a battle that mayor may not happen but will probably be their death if it does. They can stuff the emptiness of waiting with chatting or drinking or pipe dreaming. But whether they speed it up or slow it down, time is definitely not on their side.
Though it hasn't been seen on Broadway in more than six decades, "Journey's End" turns out to be no quaint curiosity from an age of innocence, dusted off and spruced up for our ironic inspection. It is instead that theatrical rarity, an uncompromising, cleareyed play about war - and not war as it echoes on the home front or in chambers of government, but war as a daily phenomenon for those who fight it.
This being the theater, "Journey's End" does not portray the bloody hue and cry of battle, with men running through exploding fields with their buddies on their backs. That's the stuff of movies, which even at their goriest and most cynical are at least partly fueled by the adrenaline rush that makes war seem like a boy's big adventure.
The action of Mr. Sherriffs play, on the other hand, is confined entirely to a dugout where the light is thick and gray, and the most exciting physical activity is watching earwigs race across a table. (Jonathan Fensom's set and Jason Taylor's lighting beautifully summon the requisite claustrophobia.) And though the clatter of artillery fire occasionally rends the air, it never entirely shatters the immense quiet, which, as one soldier puts it, "makes me feel we're - we're all just waiting for something."
Waiting is the dynamic of "Journey's End." But with a fine, largely American cast that keeps its characters' anxieties on a taut leash, watching the waiting is anything but tedious. Mr. Sherriff was writing from his own wartime experience. And though the play is as close to pure realism as early-20th-century theatrical conventions allowed, it captures the intense surrealism of living in a vacuum, in anticipation of the unknown.
It feels right that the only book quoted from in the play - a volume that Lieutenant Osborne (Boyd Gaines) keeps by his bunk - is "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." When he reads a nonsense poem from the novel, he is told, "I don't see the point in that. Osborne answers, "Exactly, that's just the point."
If you're someone who likes a personality checklist in breaking down a play, you could call Osborne, a middle-class schoolmaster, the avuncular one. By that standard, the four officers who share the dugout with him could be defined as the nervous one, Hibbert (Justin Blanchard); the salt-of-the-earth one, Trotter (John Ahlin); the idealistic newcomer, Raleigh (Stark Sands); and the romantic, tortured one, Stanhope (Hugh Dancy), the group's captain.
(The circle is rounded out by a droll Jefferson Mays, who won a Tony for "I Am My Own Wife," as the company's sly cook) But while "Journey's End" may be the prototypical comrades-of-war play, what amazed me when I saw an earlier version of this production in London three years ago was how much it resists the expected formulas. Mr. Sherriff does not ennoble, demonize or sentimentalize (well, not to excess) his characters, or present them merely as the sum of their social backgrounds.
What they share is fear, of course, compounded by a creeping sense that there is no rhyme or reason to their existence. (They have little idea about the broader course of the war, and Trotter says he relies on his wife's letters to tell him.) Since fear is what they have been conditioned not to reveal, it is how this corrosive emotion manifests itself that defines them.
For Hibbert, it's in his eternal whining about his neuralgia; with Osborne, it's in the rare moments of staring stillness that punctuate his jocular briskness. Stanhope drinks. "I couldn't bear being fully conscious all the time," he says.
A less confident director than Mr. Grindley might have felt a need to post-modernize "Journey's End": to present its characters as social artifacts amid a severely stylized production. But Mr. Grindley trusts in the play's native integrity. And his straightforward approach finds a crisp psychological clarity in the fog of war that allows us to enter these characters' heads, without any obvious polemical agenda blocking access.
To a man, the actors work with admirable finesse in making this possible. Much of what they have to say would be, in other contexts, dreary (discussions, say, of the ratio of lean to fat in the morning's bacon). And because a majority of these characters come from the British middle classes, their speech is clipped and inhibited.
Yet the eyes of each consistently betray messier, softer feelings, to us if not to one another. When Stanhope tells Trotter he envies him because nothing upsets him, Mr. Ahlin's rendering of Trotter's short, noncommittal response makes it clear just how wrong Stanhope is.
Mr. Sands's face is so open that it hurts. And Mr. Gaines, best known as a leading man ("Contact," "She Loves Me"), turns in a lovely character performance that hints at the vulnerability beneath the bluff dignity.
Stanhope, the flashiest role, was first portrayed by a young Laurence Olivier. Mr. Dancy (who played Essex to Helen Mirren's Elizabeth I on television) has the cheekbones and brooding gaze of Olivier in his matinee idol era. But he doesn't overuse them, emphasizing instead just how much of a boy Stanhope is, despite the assumed official swagger.
"Tuck me in, Uncle," he says to Osborne at bedtime, and there's a part of him that really is back in the nursery.
It is in Stanhope that you see the glimmerings of the modernist sensibility that would come out of the carnage and loss of World War 1. Though it was not Mr. Sherriffs objective to write a pacifist play, he certainly conveyed the sense of meaninglessness that could descend on a man in war.
"D'you ever get a sudden feeling that everything's going farther and farther away," Stanhope asks Osborne, "till you're the only thing in the world - and then the world begins going away, until you're the only thing in the universe - and you struggle to get back - and can't?"
Soldiers today surely continue to make that journey in their minds. During the first great war of the 21st century, this play about the first great war of the 20th century insists that we consider what such a journey does to a man.
It is possible not to relish the prospect of spending three dark days - that's 2 1/2 theater hours - in the officer dugout of a British trench in 1918. Even if Tony Blair had not announced plans to reduce the British presence in Iraq this week, however, it would be hard to remember a Broadway drama with more persuasive war-is-hell immediacy than "Journey's End."
R.C. Sherriff wrote this humane close-up of World War I in 1928, just a year after Erich Maria Remarque wrote "All Quiet on the Western Front" from his harrowing memories of the German trenches. Seventy-eight years after the Broadway premiere, Sherriff's own lesser-known slice of aching battlefield life turns out to be no less exquisitely humane.
David Grindley's celebrated revival, which ran almost two years in London, has been recast for Broadway with a virtuosic all-male company that, for all its credentials, understands the power of a real ensemble. Imagine, please, that Jefferson Mays - the solo star of "I Am My Own Wife" - takes the relatively small role of a cook, infusing his every action with an attitude of sublime efficiency.
The setup is as familiar as a standard-issue war movie. A battle-scarred captain (Hugh Dancy) is drinking too much. An old-timer (Boyd Gaines), nicknamed Uncle, is brave and loyal. The newbie (Stark Sands) turns out to be a wide-eyed friend of the captain's privileged family. The Germans are just 100 yards away. Though everyone knows that a big assault is coming, things are way too quiet outside. (The excellent sound designer is Gregory Clarke.)
But Sherriff, an insurance claims adjuster who later went to Hollywood and wrote 1939's "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," sculpts each character from meticulous observation and a droll, moody sense of humor.
Dancy, the dashing young British film actor in his Broadway debut, makes us understand the captain's need to disappear into whiskey. If we can't quite imagine that soldiers could ever dare enjoy watching him drink as a "freak," we do believe both his breeding and the hyperactive drive of his depression.
Gaines wraps a gentle, rigorous intelligence around Uncle, who was a schoolteacher in the faraway real world. John Ahlin has a boisterous sweetness as the lower-class Second Lieutenant who escapes into food. Justin Blanchard switches cannily from terrified to manipulative as an officer with psychogenic headaches. Sands makes the new guy more colors than merely green.
Revolvers are kept ready, more for the rats than for the Germans - who are deadly enemies, but as helpless as the cannon fodder on "our side." The rough wooden sets, designed by Jonathan Fensom, create an almost cozy hideaway where officers can attempt to maintain mealtime rituals. Despite an occasional shaft of sunlight from the doorway, we are forced to concentrate in candlelit darkness (lighting design by Jason Taylor). Even the old-fashioned curtain crackles with drama.
The London success of David Grindley's 2004 revival of "Journey's End," R.C. Sherriff's 1929 play set in the British trenches during WWI, illustrated the slow-burning drama's capacity to resonate with audiences 75 years on. The politics, technology, media management and basic tools of war may have changed, but the drama's insights into the psychological toll of battle and the courage and endurance of its soldiers seem more trenchant than ever in the emotionally wrenching production's recast Broadway transfer.
The play should be a dusty relic given its single setting and archetypal characters; its focus not on ordinary soldiers but on privileged, mainly middle-class officers; and its unhurried setup and almost plotless action. And given the extent to which Sherriff allows the numbing monotony of trench life to permeate the dramatic fabric, it should -- and at times does -- drift toward tedium.
But Grindley's exacting staging never shrinks from these potential stumbling blocks. He methodically follows the playwright's careful blueprint, secure in the knowledge that when the drama's inactivity detonates into emotional rawness, the effect will be devastating.
The production demands patience and alertness from its audience. Given the shadowy beauty of Jason Taylor's dim lighting and the claustrophobic confines of Jonathan Fensom's meticulously realistic, low-ceilinged dugout set, it may also require a certain amount of squinting from the mezzanine. But rarely does a play that initially seems so phlegmatic acquire such visceral power as it progresses –crescendoing in a stunning final tableau.
Which is not to say there isn't room for growth in a cast that's sturdy if not exemplary. Sherriff's drama and Grindley's approach both call for the utmost naturalism. While the performances are focused and effective, there's still too much evidence of acting -- too many signs of mastering accents, defining characters, nailing speeches.
As last season's revival of Clifford Odets' "Awake and Sing!" in this same theater showed, writing from this period requires fluency in a language full of stilted rhythms and antiquated idioms. Both plays also require well-oiled ensemble synchronicity. The cast of "Journey's End" hasn't quite captured yet the awkward oneness of men living shoulder-to-shoulder with each other and their fear in cramped quarters.
But they're not far off.
In the central role of Capt. Stanhope, Brit actor Hugh Dancy, with his matinee-idol good looks, credibly embodies the idea of the most handsome, popular lad at school, a star of the rugby and cricket fields who inspires hero worship in his younger fiiend, 2nd Lt. Raleigh (Stark Sands).
Much of the drama's conflict early on is fueled by Stanhope's angel' when Raleigh is assigned to his company near St. Quentin, France. Stanhope is unofficially engaged to Raleigh's sister back home, and, painfully aware of the changes wrought in him by nearly three years of commanding a unit at the front, he fears Raleigh will write to her about his copious intake of whiskey and growing irascibility.
This sense of war as a mutating force that can alter good men into demon-plagued wrecks is strongly conveyed in the writing and in Dancy's febrile performance. He cranks up into states of extreme agitation and intensity, spewing bitter poison yet never losing sight of the compassionate man beneath the tightly wound surface.
Sands, too, is ideally cast. While the actor's name sounds like it belongs on a porn star or a Bond girl, his face is pure boyish innocence. Fresh out of school and green to the horrors of war, Raleigh is ill-equipped to comprehend his friend's hardened behavior, and Sands makes the doomed soldier's bewilderment heart-breaking.
There's also nuanced work from Boyd Gaines as former schoolmaster Lt. Osborne, whose reading material of choice, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," echoes the surreal nature of going underground to a nightmare world. Gaines expands his range as this profoundly decent man, struggling to maintain the appearance of calm that helps to stabilize the younger officers. He's central to some of the play's most penetrating scenes.
Jefferson Mays brings understated humor as the ingratiating cook, and John Ahlin contributes another droll characterization as amiable Trotter, a rotund second lieutenant who disguises thoughts of mortality with appreciation of simple pleasures like food, drink and gardening.
While Trotter's accent identifies him as the only officer from the working class, that stiff-upper-lip proclivity to make polite small talk rather than confront terrifying reality is a common trait in Sherriff’s portrait of tested resilience. "There's nothing worse than dirt in your tea," observes Osborne stoically in the opening scene. The soldiers' almost laughably chipper language -- sprinkled with terms like "Righto," "Old boy," "I say" and "Simply topping" -- makes the awareness of the fear churning underneath more distressing.
Aided immeasurably by Fensom and Taylor in evoking the inescapable tension of trench warfare, Grindley's direction is measured and purposeful, never pushing too hard. By the time, during the climactic Gelman offensive, when the grenade blasts and gunfire are amplified to such deafening levels that the theater seems to shake and the empty dugout set becomes choked with smoke and dust, it's impossible to remain unmoved.
While it was intended not as a condemnation of war but as a salute to the men Shemff fought beside during WWI, "Journey's End" inevitably bristles with a sense of the human cost and futility of violent conflict. With no sign of the war in Iraq abating, and a government seemingly anxious to fire up another one in Iran, it encourages audiences to reflect deeply on their personal response to war, underscoring how far removed any reaction is from the direct experience.