Regional Reviews: Las Vegas
A Few Good Men
Before it became a blockbuster film in 1992, A Few Good Men was a 1989 Broadway play. Even then, his signature style was already in evidence: interesting storylines, but thinly drawn characters dealing with Big Issues where the Smart People speak in quick and witty exchanges because that is how Smart People always talk (Ben Matlock notwithstanding). Rob Reiner's film triumphed over the writing not only because of his directorial skills but also because of the firepower of his star-studded cast, with Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, and Jack Nicholson all performing at the peak of their abilities. The film is a tough act to follow for any remounting of the play, and Joe Hynes' current staging for Magnolia Productions at the Onyx Theatre deserves an A for effort and a B for execution.
As the play opens, two enlisted Marines at Guantanamo Bay have been charged with murder in the hazing death of a fellow Marine. Loyal to the Corps, they refuse to assist in their own defense, choosing to take full responsibility rather than expose the culture of bullying imposed by their chain of command. To facilitate the cover-up, the Pentagon assigns their defense to LTJG Daniel Kaffee, a callow, inexperienced JAG officer with an untarnished track record for making plea deals in order to avoid the courtroom. Although the headstrong LCDR Joanne Galloway muscles her way into serving as counsel for the co-defendant, she lacks the practical experience to serve her client well. Kaffee's second chair Lieutenant Sam Weinberg seems like an unthreatening nebbish. However, the establishment's scheme to railroad the young Marines does not go as planned, as the defense team that was designed to fail proves unexpectedly resilient.
Just why this trio succeeds is one of the more interesting aspects of the play. Unexpectedly, their individual strengths and weaknesses coalesce to make them an improbable Dream Team. In other words, it's a perfect storm. Galloway is smart, determined and fearless, but lacks finesse; she is a female bull in a china shop. Kaffee is gifted and instinctual but has earned a reputation for laziness when, in fact, a profound fear of failure underlies his reluctance to test his courtroom skills; he needs Galloway's relentless prodding to confront those fears. For most of the play, Weinberg comes across as a forgettable nobodythe JAG version of Mr. Cellophanebut Weinberg understands the culture of bullying better than either of his teammates.
In this production, however, the special chemistry among these three gets lost in the shuffle. As Kaffee, Ryan Remark struts, waves his hands, and dashes off his clever quips, but it is all too superficial; we never feel his fear, even though he mechanically telegraphs it with a hand tremor in the climactic courtroom scene. Jillian Petrelli as Galloway and Alexander Sund as Lieutenant Corporal Harold Dawson (the more stubborn defendant) also perform at a level that is largely superficial. Granted, Sorkin's script is not big on subtlety, but the emotional underpinnings are there to be found; Hynes should have coaxed more depth from these actors. Clayton Bailey fares somewhat better as Lt. Weinberg; when, late in the play, he speculates that the victim probably experienced a lifetime of bullying, we begin to see Weinberg in a new light.
A problem rooted in the script rather than the production is the preposterous subplot in which the Guantanamo second-in-command, Captain Martinson, decides in a crisis of conscience to commit armed robbery in order to steal evidence that might be helpful to the defense. Reiner's film wisely scrubbed this misguided digression. Here, actor Paul Campanella does his best to pull it off, but the scene still comes across as a clip from a 1950s gangster film, complete with a fedora pulled low over his face.
A number of cast members manage to overcome the long shadow cast by the film. Gregory Gaskill is completely natural in the role of JAG prosecutor Lieutenant Jack Ross, a conscientious yet pragmatic advocate who takes his job seriously but not personally; he will happily plea bargain for the sake of expediency, but becomes a formidable adversary when the case goes to trial. Michael Close does a fine job as chief medical officer Commander Walter Stone, whose sincere and open countenance belies his willingness to shade his expert testimony under subtle pressure from his boss. Matthew Antonizick is convincing as the religiously fervent and slightly unhinged Lieutenant Jonathan Kendrick. Also memorable is Gary Lunn in a realistic turn as the presiding judge, taciturn but intensely focused. Filling the most formidable shoes of all, Glenn Heath delivers an impressive performance as Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessep, the commanding officer who orchestrates the bullying. Although nothing will erase the image of Jack Nicholson as Jessep, Heath succeeds in making the role entirely his own, delivering Jessep's ferocious courtroom outburst with organic red-faced intensity.
Hynes keeps the performance well paced; despite its length, it never lags. The production is well served by Gregory Gaskill's efficient set design as well as the evocative lighting and sound designs by Cory Covell and Glenn Heath, respectively.
A Few Good Men continues through July 3, 2016 (Friday-Saturday at 8 pm, Sun. at. 5 pm) at the Onyx Theatre, 953 E. Sahara Ave., Suite 16B, Las Vegas, NV 89104. For tickets ($20 general admission) or further information, go to www.onyxtheatre.com.
LTJG Daniel A. Kaffee: Ryan Remark