A large cast -- "The West Wing" star Rob Lowe in his West End debut included -- huffs and puffs its way through the London preem of "A Few Good Men," which has only a few things to commend it to playgoers capable of renting Rob Reiner's film for a fraction of the price.
A large cast — “The West Wing” star Rob Lowe in his West End debut included — huffs and puffs its way through the London preem of “A Few Good Men,” which has only a few things to commend it to playgoers capable of renting Rob Reiner’s film for a fraction of the price. Show may score with those seduced by Aaron Sorkin’s co-option of the ever-popular courtroom drama genre, but Lowe’s wearyingly flip presence and David Esbjornson’s stagey production seem scarcely less onerous than, well, boot camp.
It’s hard to believe that more than 15 years have passed since then-unknown 28-year-old Sorkin took this military drama to Broadway with a huge ensemble (there are 18 in London) for a run of nearly 500 perfs. Since then, of course, scribe has hit it big writing for screens large and small, even as he’s largely vanished from the theater. (A new play is pending for Dublin’s Abbey Theater.)
His shift in genres makes sense when one casts a cold critical eye on this play, which is rich in melodramatic incident and tiresome repartee that often doesn’t suit the person speaking it: “I don’t look good in whites,” deadpans Lowe’s Daniel A. Kaffee, a Navy lawyer sounding like a refugee from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” The writing is brisk, blunt and not a little shallow, as if Sorkin had expended his energies on an overly convoluted narrative on conduct unbecoming that left scant room for freshly conceived characters or dynamic, idiosyncratic language.
Barely has the play begun before jokes emerge at the expense of the “not very good” dialogue of Kaffee’s eager-beaver femme sidekick, Galloway (Suranne Jones, in Demi Moore’s screen gig). It’s a given that these would-be adversaries will start nursing a mutual attraction by play’s end (they’re Guantanamo Bay’s unlikely answer to Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy). No less predictable is the arrival of a third lawyer, the newly besotted father Weinberg (Dan Fredenburgh), whose Judaism merely has to be announced to indicate the sum total of the character: A remark about the three representing the Harvard grad, the woman and the Jew makes plain the archetyping involved.
On TV, such breezy, generic discourse can sail smoothly by, as it can in a film version where your stars (Moore, Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise) are themselves archetypes of sorts.
But with the American military presence in Cuba having taken on far more sinister connotations than it had in 1989, the play offers merely unarguable liberal hectoring alternating with a pervasively jokey sheen. It’s hard to feel there’s much at stake in a shiny-toothed hero who speaks the Disneyfied patois of “zippity doo-dah,” as Kaffee does here.
Lowe grins his way through the part, raising his voice where necessary. But he soft-pedals what is in effect a parable of maturity about a cavalier guy who cares more for baseball than the law and only belatedly becomes a man. It may just be that the actor is too essentially soft a presence for the hard-man world of this play.
The remainder of thesps mostly strike one stage posture and cling to it, which tends to erase the contributions of John Barrowman, taking Kevin Bacon’s screen role as the prosecuting attorney, and local TV favorite Jones, whose fretful Galloway looks forever on the verge of tears.
Among the rest, it’s mildly disconcerting to find Jonathan Guy Lewis, author of a top-rank British military play called “Our Boys,” here turned actor to prop up so formulaically American a piece. Jack Ellis suggests but skillfully never pastiches Nicholson in the ball-busting role of the villainous Jessep, a baddie whose pronouncements are so important that he sometimes says them twice.
Michael Pavelka’s set whisks us into the barbed-wire — not to mention emotionally barbed — world of military malfeasance, with Esbjornson ladling on various set pieces that mostly pad an already lengthy play.
But even as the climactic courtroom encounter shifts scenic perspective time and again on its way to Kaffee’s preordained vindication, the play for all its sharp-tongued maneuvers looks as if it’s standing firmly, immovably in place.