February 25, 2007

A Solo Visit to "Journey's End"

You can usually set your watch by my husband and so it surprised us both when a dismayed K said he’d forgotten we were supposed to see a show when I called him from outside the Belasco Theater just five minutes before curtain time. So I went alone into the trenches with the boys and men of Journey’s End. They made excellent company. Especially Boyd Gaines in a devastating performance as the oldest of the officers waiting for a battle to begin in British playwright R.C. Sherriff’s landmark WWI drama. Journey’s End, originally produced as a staged reading in 1928, is famous for having been the first play to accurately portray the frontline horrors of the so-called Great War that claimed some 10 million lives. And also for the fact that an unknown 21 year-old actor named Laurence Olivier starred in a staged reading as the brigade’s young commander, the role now played by Hugh Dancy, an equally dashing British actor who has made his mark, until now, in period TV and film pieces. When a production to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the play's official 1929 opening debuted to great acclaim in London three years ago, it was seen as a comment on Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war. And for weeks now, papers and blogs here have been buzzing about the antiwar implications of the recast New York production that opened on Thursday night.

But I didn’t know any of that when the curtain went up. I try to avoid reading too much about shows before I see them. It’s not that I don't appreciate background information but I’ve been burned too many times by writers who quote too many of the good lines or give away the plot twists, leaving me when I finally see the show with a ho-hum feeling of deja vu instead of the thrilling sense of discovery. And this show is worth discovering on your own. It is an old fashioned play and it’s talky and it’s sometimes difficult to see what is going on because the lighting so well mimics the candlelit dugouts in which the real soldiers lived. The woman on my left sighed loudly and frequently during the first act. And during intermission, I heard a woman behind me grumbling to her companion about not being able to see all of the expressions on the actors’ faces. But when the final curtain fell, I heard both women quietly sobbing.

I was moved too. On the subway ride home, I read director David Grindley’s notes in the Playbill. And later, I went through the clips I regularly put aside for reading after I’ve seen a show and found a terrific piece from the Feb. 11 issue of the New York Times about the history of the play and its place in the literature of war drama from Henry V to Catch 22. Both added insights to my experience of the play but I’m still glad that I got to go through the war on my own, accompanied only by the brave and brilliant men on stage at Journey’s End.

No comments: