Gerald Sibleyras’ “Heroes” are a trio of French WWI vets who spend their days in a sanatorium dreaming up activities they never carry out, and speculating on the meaning of life as they await death. As such, the Olivier Award-winning opus at the Geffen Playhouse keeps reminding you of numerous other plays more interesting than the one you’re watching. Contrast between wispy characters and incidents, and the heavy symbolic baggage they’re forced to lug, means that a work concerned with humanity’s static state soon achieves one itself.
Occupying a hospital terrace they have seized as their exclusive redoubt, chipper Henri (Len Cariou), phlegmatic Gustave (George Segal) and nervous Philippe (Richard Benjamin) complain about fellow residents and the help, reminisce about past conquests of both the territorial and female kind, and snap at each other like “The Odd Couple” with an extra Felix attached. But expectations of a poetic exploration of loneliness and loss like David Storey’s “Home,” or even a sentimental comedy along the lines of “The Gin Game” fail to take into account the author’s far loftier ambitions, abetted by translator Tom Stoppard.
Almost immediately, the men are struck by trees swaying in the distance (original title translates as “The Wind in the Poplars”) despite “here not a breath” of breeze. They argue over whether a 200-pound statue of a spaniel is in fact moving. Later, these homebound souls pointedly admire the freedom of ducks to take flight, and tie themselves together with rope as they plan a final assault up a hill. (Yes, to reach those poplars.)
Long before the chatter about escape to Indochina — or at least to the next village — that’s followed by everyone staying put, the aud has realized with a sinking heart that these “Heroes” are meant to represent all mankind, and that to Sibleyras this part of France is Beckett County.
Merely having characters wait, of course, doesn’t transform their experience into “Godot.” Sibleyras’ symbolic tack is glib and superficial without ever expanding; once we see where the characters are going (i.e.: nowhere), we’re stuck there with them. The conversations continue monotonously, ending with uncertainty as to whether the curtain has fallen. A play obsessed with the passage of time achieves its purpose by inspiring numerous peeks at one’s watch.
Helmer Thea Sharrock, whose wunderkind rep in the U.K. surely stems from sharper work than this, either overemphasizes emotional moments or elides them altogether. Cues click along but with no energy behind them, and the physical comedy is especially maladroit, as with Philippe’s sudden (and symbolic) narcoleptic spells due to shrapnel in his head. Sharrock never guides Benjamin to enough variety in execution to make his collapses cumulatively funny.
It doesn’t help that the cast is so lacking in verisimilitude. Segal is a dead ringer for the late Ugo Tognazzi, Cariou slightly resembles Maurice Chevalier and Benjamin parts his hair in the middle, but that’s as Continental as they get. One sits there wondering how three American G.I.s ended up in a French nursing home. Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, manifest Everymen, can be played as any age, race or ethnicity, but Sibleyras’ “Heroes” are very specific characters in a specific time and place. The Geffen actors’ flat accents and general absence of Old World behavioral finesse simply accentuate the falseness of the enterprise.
Gustave’s exasperation does offer Segal opportunity for amusing reactions and Benjamin’s trademarked jittery charm is much in evidence, but Cariou seems too focused on conveying Henri’s lameness to become fully engaged in the proceedings.
Tech contributions are all adequate, though there’s a long vertical tear in the sky backcloth upstage left, symbolizing a certain inattention to detail.