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A CurtainUp Review

Don't you like the month of August? &mdash Philippe
No, I hate the month of August. If months were days of the week, August would be Sunday. . . a pointless, paltry affair. &mdash Gustave
 John Cullum in Heroes
John Cullum in Heroes (Photo: Theresa Squire )
John Cullum is not only one terrific actor but he is also proving how spry and ambitious he is. He is currently playing the mid-western father who disappears after the first scene in August: Osage County at the Music Box Theatre on 45th Street. In a rare but not unheard of example of gleeful opportunism — appearing in two plays at the same time— Cullum is obliged to turn up only minutes later at the Clurman Theatre on 42nd Street to play an aging French World War I vet hobbling around with the help of a cane in Heroes.

Let's assume that Cullum is in tip top shape and a sprinter, but what about him doing a complete about face in character. As you may surmise, Cullum doesn't have to return to 45th Street for the rest of Tracy Lett's more than three-hour long play, but I was amused by his opening line in Heroes, "I love the month of August." (and the subsequent lines quoted above) My amusement, however, was short-lived.

Despite Cullum's brief time in August: Osage County, he brings a magnetic energy to the role that serves to get that play off to a great start. He does the same for Heroes, an otherwise listless, stagnant play by Gérald Sibleyras (as translated from the French by Tom Stoppard) in which he plays with great élan Henri, whose remaining years are consigned to whiling away the days and hours in the company of two other World War I vets.

Their conversation is mostly centered on the inability of Henri's buddies Gustave (Ron Holgate) and Philippe (Jonathan Hogan) to venture beyond the grounds of the walled terrace of a veterans' home in France in 1959, for reasons both psychological and physiological. The terrace setting designed by Beowulf Boritt is evocative enough: A blue sky with some clouds is visible above the ivy- covered terrace walls. A few chairs and the statue of a stone dog complete the décor.

Henri's principal diversion is taking a daily half mile constitutional that places him within peeking distance of a girls' school, an innocent and titillating enough excursion to satisfy the old man who we can see still has a twinkle in his eye and some not quite dead romantic inclinations. Holgate gets more distinguished and better looking as he ages. His stunning silver hair and white beard are notable enhancements to his virile countenance. As Gustave, Holgate uses his resonant voice for stentorian effect. He struts around and postures like a proud peacock and harbors a dream of going to French Indo China. Huh? But more practically, Gustave would like to take a trip with his buddies to the poplars that he, Philippe and Henri can see swaying in the breeze in the distance. The play's original French title was Le Vent des Peupliers translated as The Wind in the Poplars.

And what exactly is Philippe's specialité de la maison other than gracefully passing out every few minutes and believing that he sees the stone dog moving. He is played with an air of willful resignation by Hogan, whose long and admirable career on and off Broadway includes 25 years as a member of the celebrated Circle Rep. Afflicted with what seems to be a degenerating narcolepsy, presumably the result of shrapnel lodged in his head, Philippe has his best moment off stage as he describes how he passed out and fell into the open grave of a fellow vet whose funeral he was attending. But more importantly, when things are getting boring on stage, he knows enough to simply pass out on cue from the mostly soporific doings and digressions in the best way he knows. Not having any shrapnel in my head, I can't explain my wanting to sleep it off as well.

Given their names and references throughout the play, we are expected to believe that these men are French, though there is nothing remotely Gallic about them — not in their speech, temperament, or body language. Why have they not simply been renamed and put in an American facility? Not that that would improve the play. Worse still is Stoppard's stiff and pretentious translation, or to be blunt, virtually nothing spoken has a ring of truth or plain-speak.

Director Carl Forsman has maneuvered the three fine actors deftly through a play that is not about heroes or particularly heroic. Despite its London success in 2005 and a previous American production in Los Angeles, one can only wonder why the commendably distinctive Keen Company would want to mount it. I'd certainly be curious to know what criteria served as the basis for the play receiving the 2006 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. I shudder to think about what the competitors were?

Editor's Note: While both our London and Los Angeles critics liked the play better than Simon did, neither rated it as a Wow!. London review. . .Los Angeles review

By Gérald Sibleyras (as translated from the French by Tom Stoppard)"" Directed by Carl Forsman
Cast: John Cullum, Ron Holgate, Jonathan Hogan
  Scenic Designer: Beowulf Boritt
  Costume Designer: Theresa Squire
  Lighting Designer: Josh Bradford
  Sound Designer: Will Pickens
  Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes no intermission
  The Keen Company at the Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street (212) 279- 4200
  Performances: Tuesday – Friday at 8:30 PM; Saturday at 3 PM; Sunday at 4 PM.
  Tickets ($51.50)
  Opened 03/08/09 Ends 04/11/09
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance
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