With the current state of the economy, it’s rare to find theaters willing to take risks. Rarer still are those moments when those risks pay off, with dividends. Imagine my delight to attend “Heroes” at Off-Broadstreet Theater and discover the good things that can happen when a talented team tackles a less-than-famous recent play with both care and passion. “Heroes” is a wonderfully funny meditation on aging, relevance, and friendship, and I believe it ranks as the most ambitious display of solid storytelling to grace OBT’s stage in recent memory.
“Heroes” began life as a French play by Gerald Sibleyras — “Le Vent des Peupliers” (“The Wind in the Poplars”), before literary giant Tom Stoppard translated it into English for runs in London, New York, and Los Angeles. Sibleyras is clearly a contemporary of celebrated French playwright Yasmina Reza, with the play’s tight script leaning heavily on the interactions of a small, tight-knit cast interspersed with gloriously quotable lines delivered as pithy barbs and well-polished chestnuts.
The similarities end there, however. Where Reza’s “The God of Carnage” and “Art” are chock full of wicked laughter and the occasional piece of societal commentary delivered as a well-placed shiv between the ribs, “Heroes” is a sentimental, thoughtful, and surprisingly affecting riff on the same style.
In the late summer of 1959, three aging veterans spend their days on the terrace of an old soldiers’ home, presented here as a staid set of monolithic walls and stone fencing and guarded by statue of a wolfhound. Gustave (George Agalias), Philippe (Michael Lawrence), and Henri (Doug Kline), putter away their days with gossip, bouts of nostalgia, and the occasional diversion into a madcap scheme — all the while alternately bolstering and exasperating one another.
Each of the three men has his own clearly- efined set of quirks and characteristics — Henri, a resident of the veterans’ home for decades, is a romantic at heart, hindered by a lost leg and the occasional bout of practicality. Philippe, a resident for nearly a decade, is a paranoid, loveable goofball with a piece of shrapnel lodged in his brain that makes him prone to fainting spells and slightly inappropriate advisements to “attack from the rear.” And Gustave, the newest addition to the trio, is a well-coiffed scoundrel and confidence man, bound by agoraphobia and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Setting these three men up with their boons and flaws and letting them bounce off one another for the play’s lean 90 minutes gives a fascinating insight into how trapped we can all be by the milestones of our past — all three earned their wounds as young men in World War I, and, having lived through the second World War and attained a different perspective, struggle with a sense of hopelessness in their twilight years. These three men search for meaning in one another and in ways to reclaim their youth and virility via a series of unlikely escape plans, eventually settling on a quest to claim a small hill beneath breeze-blown poplars outside the home’s grounds.
With an enjoyable spark of mischief and well-travelled sensibility, Agalias is arresting as the energetic and opinionated Gustave, whose jaded storytelling gives way to wide-eyed panic and terror at the world beyond. When the proverbial walls come down and we see Gustave’s bravado collapse, his charm has earned our sympathy. Lawrence infuses Philippe with a touch of innocence and rascally, womanizing joy. Kline’s cane-wielding Henri exudes poignancy and strength, hampered only by his own realizations of what is and is not possible. His admiration from afar of a young woman in the town beyond the farm has the palpable, realistic sense of acutely felt lost youth, well-respected and remembered. And of course, then there’s the dog statue — but that would be telling. I’ll leave that to you to discover on your own.
All three actors demonstrate excellent command of silence, punctuation, and timing. A simple throwaway joke can land masterfully, only to become a major plot point later. And a line that starts as a gentle, everyday tease can end up landing with unexpected gravitas and rage, hitting where it hurts. At the end of the day, here are three men who have spent various amounts of time contemplating the end of their lives, each with enough faculties to realize what’s happened and is happening to them, and to want more, but each with a hurdle to climb that seems insurmountable on his own. In one another, they look for escape, both metaphoric and actual. And how they find it is a big chunk of the beauty, comedy, and strength of “Heroes.”
The purpose of good art is to comment on culture. And “Heroes” certainly fits the bill — it’s a moving and hilarious look at what happens inside our heads as we begin to perceive that the world has turned a little bit, and left us perhaps a little bit closer to the wings than center stage. The near-capacity house this weekend had a lovely time, and I invite you to pick up a set of tickets and do the same.
“Heroes,” Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, October 29. Comedy by Tom Stoppard set in France, 1959. $27.50 to $29.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.