Paul Bentzen, left, John Lister and Jonathan Smoots in American Players Theatre's <i>Heroes</i>.
American Players Theatre's Heroes, directed by James Bohnen, is funny and, at times, tragic. Unfolding on the terrace of a French veterans' home in 1959, Heroes centers on a trio of aging World War I vets. The guys spend a lot of time talking, and eventually they plan an adventure. Though it hints at complex themes, the story is straightforward. In Heroes, it's the characters that really shine. The play opened at a Saturday matinee in APT's Touchstone Theatre.
Henri, played by Paul Bentzen, is the shiniest. Despite having lost a leg in the war, he's an optimist with a grin that spreads across his whole face. Plump Philippe is quirky, kind and prone to fainting spells due to a scrap of shrapnel in his head. John Lister, a perfect choice for this role, highlights Philippe's sincerity.
The most fascinating character is handsome, sharp-tongued Gustave, finely portrayed by Jonathan Smoots. Gustave has recently arrived at the home, and his confidence belies a war injury less visible than those of his pals, agoraphobia so severe that even thinking about leaving for a walk makes him shudder.
Gustave gets some of Heroes' best lines. Describing a woman with big gums, he chortles, "She looks like a horse getting a joke!" Later, at one of my favorite moments, we see Gustave at his most stripped-down. "Everything is complicated to us, every single thing," he laments. "Finding a good reason to get up in the morning is infinitely more complicated."
The unobtrusive design of the set and costumes reflects the palette of late summer in the French countryside: deep sage green, mustard yellow, navy blue, a dash of crimson. The colors also nod to the uniforms the men wore as soldiers. Scene changes are delineated by the dancelike passage of a nun who cares for the retired soldiers, silent Sister Bernadette, played sweetly by Breana Jarvis.
On opening day, some lines were delivered a little too quickly, but overall the dialogue reflected strong chemistry between the three men. Their conversations wander through topics of life, war, even sex. The men give each other a hard time, teasing in a way that only people who care about each other can.
I can't avoid thinking of the film Grumpy Old Men. Heroes is less edgy and more philosophical, but when it comes down to it, the play's about old dudes sitting around talking. Tom Stoppard, who translated Gerald Sibleyras's play from the French, changed the title from Le Vent des Peupliers ("The Wind in the Poplars"). He might have called the play Grumpy Old French Men.
On opening day, much of the audience was on the older side -- the average age appeared to be about 60. Heroes seemed to resonate with this crowd exceedingly well. I spied one woman laughing so hard she had to wipe tears from her eyes.
Character-driven and funny, American Players Theatre's production is well done. The uncomplicated plot and complicated characters are a perfect combination.