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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

It’s a wonderful thing, a woman laughing. They forget themselves, give themselves up, on a plate – personally I think making them laugh is as important as making them climax.— Philippe
Never tell a woman that making her laugh and making her climax are equally important. She’ll think you’re going to divide your concentration and she’ll drop you just like that.— Gustave


Len Cariou, George Segal and Richard Benjamin in Heroes
(Photo: Michael Lamont )
Age has not blunted these three veterans’ avid interest in the opposite sex. It’s one of the traits that makes Gerald Sibleyras’s Heroes at the Geffen Playhouse quiver with laughter.

Henri (Len Cariou), who, according to Gustave (George Segal), is a born enthusiast, has just discovered, after 25 years residence at this Veterans’ Home in the French countryside, the delightful girls and their teacher at a neighboring school. Gustave is more taken with the statue of a dog that sits on the terrace where the three spend their days. The dog has become so real to them that Philippe (Richard Benjamin), the third man, believes he sees it move.

Philippe does considerable moving himself, falling into a paralyzed trance regularly from a head wound, always coming out of it shouting, "Take them from the rear, Captain." This is not a reference to war experiences but a recurring memory of a large woman he knew who liked to be called Captain. Actually, there’s very little reference to war experiences in Heroes, which won last year’s Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and four Moliere nominations in its native France in 2003 under the original title Le Vent des Peupliers. Because its literal translation, The Wind in the Poplars, was thought distractingly similar to The Wind in the Willows and Veterans was already taken, it became Heroes, which is equally misleading as heroism isn’t the point.

The play profits enormously from its translation by Tom Stoppard who has the subtlety and wit to make it shimmer. It’s very French in its elevation of the trivial, its insouciant disregard of a through line and the dapper panache of its three leading men.

Philippe is so bored by his sister he gives her letters to Gustave, who enjoys answering them in Philippe’s name. Much time is spent on planning excursions that will take them away from the frightening Sister Madeline. One such trip to Indo-China is finally abandoned and the three rope themselves into a garden hose to ford a nearby river and scale a hill. Of course, they never actually go anywhere but they’re so absorbed in these games that they take on a life of their own. Their quarrels, their closing ranks, their fantasies get them through a richly colored day. One of the play’s underlying themes is the elevation of the trivial in a constricted environment like this and in Sibleyras’s hands it becomes an art form.

Of the three men, Cariou is the warmest, playing the born enthusiast Henri. Segal is an irascible Gustave and Benjamin’s Philippe is prim but has more than a touch of the boulevardier.

The back of the stage is lined with poplar trees that look like bars in Robert Jones’s beautiful set whose foliage and ivy-clad walls soften the penal impression. Howard Harrison has worked wonders with the lighting, turning the leaves red as autumn comes and creating a changing cloudland in the sky.

Thea Sharrock, also kept busy directing Daniel Radcliffe aka Harry Potter in Equus”, directed the play in London and has maintained verve and poignance with her new cast. The one jarring note comes when Henri tells the others of the death of one of their fellow residents and the two men hardly react at all, which seems off key. The poplars moving in the wind are often mentioned and their fluidity seems to be a symbol for life and freedom, even in this secluded Home. At the end Philippe comments on the geese flying in V-formation. "The one in front parts the air, so the others don’t get too tired. During the whole length of their journey they take turns to lead the flock."Then the three old heroes stand in V-formation, an echo of military parades, and lean forward with their hands behind them, ready to help each other in their final flight.

For a review of the 2005 London production go here.

Playwright: Gerald Sibleyras, Translated by Tom Stoppard
Director: Thea Sharrock
Cast: Len Cariou (Henri), George Segal (Gustave), Richard Benjamin (Philippe)
Set and Costume Design: Robert Jones
Lighting Design: Howard Harrison
Sound Design: Jonathan Burke
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Running Dates: April 18-May 27, 2007
Where: The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles. Reservations: (310) 208-6500
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on April 18.
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