Somehow, the combination of ever-clever translator Tom Stoppard and worldly wise French playwright Gerald Sibleyras produced the kind of quaint work upon which Keen Company can be relied to pounce. The story of three WWI vets whiling away their autumn years in an old soldiers’ home, “Heroes” benefits from helmer and Keen a.d. Carl Forsman’s sure hand, excellent design work by the ubiquitous Beowulf Borritt and some choice acting. It’s a shame the play’s Gotham premiere hasn’t had a few more rehearsals, though — this piece could use a good deal more of the company’s trademark polish and precision.
It’s not hard to see why “Heroes” is the exception to Keen’s neatness-counts rule: With one actor hastily replaced (Ron Holgate stepped in at the end of January for Tony Roberts, originally cast as Gustave) and one actor hot-footing it from the Music Box to Theater Row every evening (John Cullum, who plays Henri, continues to perform in the opening scene of “August: Osage County”), a little lack of focus is to be expected.
What’s troubling is the effect this has on the production: Keen Company’s choices frequently border on the sentimental. But here, without a perfectly tuned production to sweep the audience along, the play’s little flaws and eccentricities become more apparent, and “Heroes” ends up feeling maudlin and small. If you sit down and think about it after the show, you can see the appeal of the play. But you have to sit down and think about it.
Thankfully, the third cast member, Jonathan Hogan, goes a long way toward redeeming the production’s distracting stumbles. The three men portrayed here all have something wrong with them: Henri has a bad leg, Gustave is cripplingly shy and Philippe (Hogan) has a piece of shrapnel lodged in his head that causes him to pass out or babble. As both the kindest and the most helpless of the three men, Hogan seems utterly sure of himself even as his character keels over and shouts “From the rear, captain! Take them from the rear!”
Where Yasmina Reza’s “Art” followed three intellectuals setting aside debate in favor of friendship, “Heroes” chronicles three men of action (who similarly constitute one another’s entire social universe) fighting progressively smaller and smaller battles together. Battles with the head nun at the nursing home, for example, or with walking down the street.
“Do you meet people?” Gustave anxiously asks Henri, the most social of the three. When Henri affirms that yes, sometimes he does, Gustave has another, heartbreaking question: “And what … I mean, what do you do?”
These moments of vulnerability give “Heroes” its center, somewhat obscured but still very much intact. With Stoppard’s translation, the characters’ crabby exchanges get that little Wildean sparkle that characterizes the playwright’s own work. And Stoppard delicately brings out Sibleyras’ optimistic notion that any two of these three old cusses are strong enough to haul the other one along behind them, though no one of them is able to make it through life’s last few years alone, and two of them alone would kill each other.
In another play, you might expect a poignant death to cap the evening off, but Sibleyras makes it abundantly clear that these men work in concert or not at all. The play’s symbolism, sometimes loud and sometimes nicely muted, gives it further layers worth chewing over after the final fadeout. It’s a rich play, and all three performers are obviously suited to their roles; the production just needs a little more time to mature.