With the opening of "A Few Good Men" on Friday, September 4, the Danny Hoskins era has officially begun at Blackfriars Theatre. And in the 1989 play (which became a star vehicle for Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in the 1992 movie), the company's artistic and managing director has chosen a deceptively challenging work for his debut at the helm of the organization.
The story is by now exceedingly familiar: a Navy JAG lawyer is tasked with defending two Marines accused of murdering a third after a hazing incident known as a "code red" goes awry. The work's signature line "You can't handle the truth!" has arguably become one of the most memorable accusations in film history and an indelible, lasting phrase in our culture. But the substance and complexity of the play can't be encapsulated in these five unequivocal words.
The central problem is that "A Few Good Men" is far more effective through the lens of film than it is as live theater. Playwright Aaron Sorkin's script is the story's great, abiding strength, but in play form, it is also a glaring weakness. The dialogues possess singular crackling wit, brisk pacing, and a conversational tone that reveals insightful character quirks even as it provides nuts-and-bolts plot points. In and of itself, this would be a major boon to any play. But this kind of intimate repartee is best suited for the one-to-one intensity of interaction typically captured in deliberately cropped, close camera angles. It doesn't work as well in the wide-open spaces of the stage, where a more declamatory style in key moments can more actively engage the audience. On film, subtleties in characters' exchanges with one another can be more fully articulated, and a compelling score can communicate even more.
None of these advantages were afforded the Blackfriars Theater cast -- nor would it be granted to any ensemble of live actors -- so the performers were saddled with a severe disadvantage, over which they have no control. Despite these limitations, Hoskins has a firm grasp of the dramatic tenor of the play: Is institutional morality justified when serving "the greater good?" Is there ever a situation in which mistreatment of a person is acceptable under the auspices of honor and duty?
The cast does an equally admirable job fleshing out the ethical conundrum at the core of Sorkin's play, but a few standout performances resonate especially well. In the role of Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson, Sam Carter perfectly embodies a man marooned by his own principles, which seem alien, misguided, even reckless in the eyes of the one person able to rescue him from his predicament.
The rescuer, Lieutenant J.G. Daniel A. Kaffee, is a cocky, underachieving lawyer who finds his previously cavalier attitude toward his work and the people he defends suddenly ineffective when he is fighting for the lives of military men who maintain they were following orders. The role of Kaffee is the obvious linchpin of the play: the audience must see a transformation in the young lawyer -- a formerly selfish and small individual who has risen to his responsibility, internalized the plight of the accused, and become a bigger man in the process.
E.J. Cantu's interpretation of Kaffee is fully formed, three-dimensional, and by the end of the play, engrossing. Cantu has a rich and diverse emotional palette, which he uses here to detail the intangible process of a man formed by his experiences, rising above the anxiety, fear, and panic that threatens to swallow him. Kevin Sweeney is every bit the gruff, intractable Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessep, even channeling Nicholson's defiant sneer.
The play itself merely scratches the surface of the inner motivations of the accused Marines. It doesn't truly address where their convictions and strict value system originate within themselves. While such an exploration may have made for a far more interesting drama, the Blackfriars Theatre production is more than sufficient in excavating the depths of Sorkin's play as it stands.