Richard Griffiths looks blissed-out in the opening moments of “Heroes,” and for as long as he is savoring the summer sun, so are we. But just as the August heat inevitably cools, the rapture this beatific actor gives off does not last. By play’s end 90 long minutes later, autumn is on the horizon, and an impatient audience may find itself seeking any change of scene. It’s been ages since so promising a title came up so dramatically short: If Griffiths and colleagues Ken Stott and John Hurt can’t deliver the goods, one has to wonder who can.
Plan seems to have been to stick to the contours if not the actual substance of “Art,” an earlier Gallic entry that went on to a long West End life at this same venue. The connection is furthered by fast-rising helmer Thea Sharrock, now artistic director of London’s Gate Theater, who cut her teeth as “Art’s” associate director.
Like “Art,” “Heroes” is short and at least ostensibly bittersweet; it comes with a weighty British translator attached (Tom Stoppard now, Christopher Hampton then); and it allows three estimable actors a chance to share the stage. But unlike Yasmina Reza’s Tony winner, which gave tragedy a comic sheen, “Heroes” is a painfully glib series of scenes that aspire to profondeur but land squarely in the shallows. Five minutes of Stoppard’s “Invention of Love” said infinitely more about loss and the advent of death than the sitcom shenanigans at a French military hospital here struggling to equal a play.
The material’s Paris originator, Gerald Sibleyras, was born in 1961, two years after the play takes place, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he seems to be coming at his trio of war veterans from the outside in. Henri (Griffiths) has spent a quarter-century in the military hospital where he now passes his time in bavardage with Philippe (Stott), a resident of some 10 years, and latest inhabitant Gustave (Hurt), who’s clocking up a scant six months. Henri is lame, Gustave immovably lonely and dyspeptic, and Philippe subject to sudden, increasingly frequent fainting spells. But “Heroes” posits no ailment that can’t be cured by a joke or plot contrivance, no matter how strained.
You’d think, for instance, that the sight of a heavy stone statue of a dog might allow for an occasional laugh, as the men at various times attempt to bring le chien to life in search of some cheer. But no. As the trio set their sights on an expedition you know they’ll never take (Beckett didn’t write “Waiting for Godot” in French for nothing), the dog seems less to decorate the plot than become a substitute for one, and what difference if the suggestions made in its direction are patently daft?
Not knowing the play in French, it’s difficult to apportion responsibility for the creeping vulgarity that all but overtakes the action. Suffice it to say the aud after a while is sniggering at lines scarcely intended to be suggestive. (“There’s quite a swell today” follows Henri’s discovery of the local girls’ school during one of his “constitutionals.”)
Faux-innuendo aside, it’s vaguely embarrassing to have Griffiths’ corpulence prompt multiple jokes at the expense of the actor, not the character, one of which finds Hurt’s inwardly stricken Gustave offering Henri a piggyback ride; Henri declines.
Griffiths, as ever, is a game performer with a lovely fallen soufflé of a face, but he deserves better than an extended sequence in which all three men trade notes on their erstwhile approaches to picking up chicks: so much barroom banter for the cemetery brigade. (A cemetery, indeed, exists tellingly out of view of Robert Jones’ inviting set.)
The play opened in Paris in 2002 under the title “Le Vent des Peupliers” (The Wind From the Poplars), and the trees are extensively invoked as indicators on a horizon that remains forever out of reach. But whereas the blank canvas in “Art” worked as a metaphor for a friendship always being redrawn, “Heroes” veers between one defining emblem of escape or another, coming to rest on the formation of a flock of geese. (Gustave helpfully mimes the image, lest we missed it.)
It is Philippe, though, who most embodies the walking wounded, his unsteadiness a result of a piece of shrapnel in his skull. Stott brings his customary gravelly authority to the part and, as a veteran of the original cast of “Art,” has Anglicized boulevard theatrics down pat. But Stott is capable of far more than the forced running gag that has been made of Philippe’s malaise, which gets mined for comic potential, often shamelessly so. Hints of a fearsome (offstage) family life — he’s afraid his sister and brother-in-law have left him to die — open on to an angrier, darker play than “Heroes” shows any interest in being. Not for the first time, the evening feels cowardly.