Played correctly – as it surely is in MetroStage’s sweet and charming production – Gérald Sibleyras’ Heroes is something Noël Coward might have written, had Coward been free to be earthy – which is to say, had Coward been writing in 2003, when Sibleyras wrote Heroes. It is witty; its characters are agreeably tart; it is a little bit sentimental; and it has the decency to avoid a clichéd dramatic climax. So what more do you want? Tom Stoppard?
Well, it has some of that, too. Stoppard translated Heroes from the original French, but while the dialogue contains that unmistakable Stoppardian punch, the story is clearly Sibleyras’, free from the wordplay and tightly woven philosophical underpinnings that characterize Stoppard’s work. All that’s left is the fun, and that’s what the evening is: fun.
It helps that the three actors who stage this production – Michael Tolaydo, John Dow and Ralph Cosham – do so with nearly perfect pitch. It helps that John Vreeke directs the production and imbues it with his eerie sense of timing. It helps that Sibleyras wrote a play with limited ambitions, and achieved them perfectly.
It is 1959, and we are on the grounds of a French sanctuary – they use the term “sanitarium”, but not in the sense that it’s meant in American English – for Veterans of the First World War. On a secluded patio bench sit three well-dressed men and a dog. Gustav (Cosham), haughty and acid-tongued, is invariably stage right; Phillippe (Dow), an amiable fellow afflicted by periodic bouts of unconsciousness brought about by cranial shrapnel, sits stage left and Henri (Tolaydo), long lame, optimistic, and full of enthusiasms, sits in the middle. The dog sits wherever they put him. He is made of stone, and resembles Cerberus, had Cerberus had only one head and been on the South Beach diet for five hundred years.
They are all full of eccentricities. Phillippe cannot stand to read letters from his boring sister, who has married a moron, and so delegates the task to Gustav. Gustav answers the letters, too, and not gently. Henri periodically limps to town and reports back; he has discovered a local girl’s school, and has ecstatically exchanged hellos with the youthful headmistress. “Bring her here! Introduce her to us!” his comrades urge him, while advising him on ways to make romantic progress with the lady, who appears to be about forty years his junior. Henri, for whom saying hello seems the epitome of sexual aggression, is not likely to succeed in this endeavor.
Their dilemma is that their souls are dead, and they have gone to this place in order to wait for their minds and bodies to catch up. In this, Sibleyras treads on ground which has been trod before, in Loring Mandel’s Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, and in Coward’s Waiting in the Wings, but what he lacks in originality he makes up in simplicity and grace.
Our heroes resolve to undertake an expedition in order to reestablish their vitality. They each formulate plans according to their degree of boldness. Henri proposes a picnic. Gustav suggests Indo-China. They compromise by deciding to travel to a grove of poplars on the far horizon. The poplars shake in the wind, which is wonderful to them, as they feel nothing but the still air around them. They immediately fall into a ruinous argument about the details of the trip: what route to take, and what provisions, and should they build a raft. It soon becomes apparent that they are going nowhere, not even off the back porch, and everything becomes peaceful, even as they continue to squabble. Their lives have narrowed down to three good friends, telling each other lies. It is sufficient.
by Gérald Sibleyras
translation by Tom Stoppard
directed by John Vreeke
produced by MetroStage
reviewed by Tim Treanor
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