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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jonathan Hogan, Ron Holgate, and John Cullum.
Photo by Theresa Squire.

You can take the soldier off the mission, but you can't take the... Well, you can probably figure out the rest - some aphorisms are just like that. Some plays, too. Case in point: Heroes, which the Keen Company just opened at the Clurman Theatre. GĂ©rald Sibleyras's gentle-to-a-fault comedy, which has been translated from the original French by Tom Stoppard of all people, doesn't have an original thought in its head or an original funny bone in its body. But that doesn't make this compact, utterly irrelevant star vehicle for three mature actors any less winning.

In fact, it almost helps, because it dissolves every barrier between you, the actors, and their characters. The absurdity of such a lightweight outing populated with the powerful actors John Cullum, Ron Holgate, and Jonathan Hogan is not far removed from the absurdity that Henri, Gustave, and Phillipe, whom they respectively play, endure in 1959 as they live out their final years in a French veterans' home. Three stalwarts of the ongoing struggle known as show business and three survivors of World War I find in each other a natural affinity that can't help but envelop you too. So despite the fact that nothing of consequence happens, they and director Carl Forsman still seemingly take you on a once-in-a-lifetime ride.

The story concerns nothing more than the three men trying to recapture their greatest days by undertaking one final journey: a reconnaissance trip to a poplar grove they can view from their favorite terrace. The bloviating Gustave longs to again lead a battalion but can't bring himself to leave his compound, Henri has fallen in love with a young schoolteacher in the neighboring town, and Phillippe blacks out every five minutes - the trio have their work cut out for them. Sprinkle in visits from the usual specter of mortality and you have (barely) enough to fill 90 minutes of running time.

Miraculously, however, you never feel slighted. Although the writing is loaded with sitcom tropes - did that dog actually move? Is the nurse killing people so she never has overlapping birthdays? - Sibleyras imbues all three men with such love and reverence, which Stoppard translates into soft-edged, Everyman poetry, that Heroes always plays like one of the biggest tiny stories ever told. You care about the men and their rapidly fading hopes for another triumph for precisely the reason their unseen countrymen do: They represent a dying breed so special it's unwilling to go out with anything less than a second Big Bang.

Your familiarity with the actors' careers will only help on some level, but it's not necessary: One look at them tells you everything you need to know. Cullum is ideal, craggly casting as Henri, the reluctant realist of the three; the perfectly coiffed Holgate radiates authority as the big talker who long ago forgot how to command anything; and Hogan's outsider manner is just right to capture Phillipe's wide-eyed confusion (and suspicion) at what's happening to him and around him. The three richly contrast each other but are unavoidably graduates of the same school of decadent decency, which gives them the class they need and have earned.

The actors' don't give complex performances; in fact, it's often hard to tell they're giving performances at all. But they embody exactly the history that Sibleyras and Stoppard want to remind you has already passed almost entirely into legend. As if in kinship with them, Forsman has made his staging relentlessly, uncharacteristically mild and respectful. Perhaps even too much so: More volume and heat could blunt the melancholy predictability of the final two scenes which, while touching, are far from engrossing. You get the sense there's more than a little hand-holding at work, some of which might be needed - at the performance I attended, all three actors noticeably stumbled over their lines more than once.

But it's not difficult to forgive them. Cullum, Holgate, and Hogan all make you feel that what they, like their characters, want most is another opportunity to show what they can really do. Heroes, after all, doesn't much stretch their muscles, or yours (except for the ones that let you smile). In just about every way, it's a blithe, of-the-moment entertainment that just seems to be tiding them - and you - over until something better comes along. At least it's light and lovely enough to justify - and energize - the wait until that something better arrives.

Through April 11
Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Performances: Tues 8:30 pm, Wed 8:30 pm, Th 8:30 pm, Fri 8:30 pm, Sat 3:00 pm, Sun 4:00 pm
Tickets: TicketCentral

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