How often have you attended a play or concert where the audience seems distracted, even disconnected, from the proceedings onstage? Then, at the end of the performance, that same audience, as if on cue, rises to its feet in a meaningless, mindless, yet somehow obligatory, standing ovation? At the opening-night performance of A Few Good Men, for a refreshing change, there was not a standing ovation, nor was there any need for one. The audience had been "standing" at attention all evening long, engaged and entertained by an ambitious production that has been directed, drilled and snare-drummed into taut precision by Julie George-Carlson.
What makes this crackerjack mounting all the more impressive is the fact that the play itself, written by a young Aaron Sorkin (more recently the creator of The West Wing), is less than memorable. A Few Good Men, as everyone who has seen the much-rewritten and improved 1992 blockbuster movie version will recall, is a military-courtroom mystery about a callow Navy attorney assigned to the defense of two young Marines charged with having murdered one of their own at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Predictably, during the proceedings our hero learns about responsibility and maturity, even as the play pretends to ask Big Questions about the balance of authority and liberty in a free society.
But in truth, these questions hardly get asked at all. Every time Sorkin comes close to a meaty issue, he opts out with a slick quip. The masterful American playwright Lillian Hellman once wrote, "People who think they are telling you something, something large, and then can't, make me nervous." I think Hellman would have been very nervous around Aaron Sorkin.
A curious sense of irrelevancy hovers over the play. A Few Good Men is only 13 years old, but already its Cold War themes ("We live in a world of walls") feel as dusty as parchment. Had A Few Good Men been written in the 1950s, it might be worth revisiting as a time capsule. But who digs up time capsules from 1989?
Yet despite the play's deficiencies, and despite the fact that it consistently chooses to opt for glibness over substance, there is no denying that it works. It is a crowd-pleaser. There's no real surprise about that. Most well-crafted trial plays work. Why? Because drama is conflict, and conflict is never more charged than in the act of confrontation. In real life, most of us go to extreme lengths to avoid confronting an adversary. But confrontation is mother's milk to the courtroom drama.
A Few Good Men fits neatly into the genre that includes the likes of Inherit the Wind, The Andersonville Trial and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. Although the observant theatergoer might accuse A Few Good Men of having stolen a little something from each of those plays -- here, Capt. Queeg's steel balls are replaced by Col. Jessup's gumballs, and Inherit the Wind's rousing chorus of "Gimme that old-time religion" is amended to "Gimme that old Marine Corps spirit" -- the cynic might regret that Sorkin didn't steal a little more -- for instance, some of the concern and conscience those plays transmit.
Nevertheless, the troupe at Off Center has attacked this slight play with great gusto. From the moment the Marine drill calls begin and Bob Fowler's moody lighting begins to convey the hazy summer heat of Cuba, the viewer can rest at ease that he or she is in capable hands. Fowler's sprawling sets make imaginative use of the playing space. As for the cast, well, they have been extended to the limits. The Broadway production employed 24 actors; Off Center has striven to mount the play with 16. As the feckless defense attorney, Dan Finney has the unenviable task of delivering lines that sound as if they were tailor-made for Tom Cruise. (They weren't; Tom Hulce -- whose gentle demeanor couldn't be more different than that of Cruise -- created the role on Broadway.) But Finney plows ahead with bravado.
They all do. I was especially moved by Matt Holtmann, who brings humanity and empathy to what might have been a thankless role as one of the two confused Marine defendants. But everyone involved should be saluted for the toil, sweat and tears that have gone into this highly charged entertainment. A Few Good Men may not tax your brain, but this is for sure: You won't be bored.