Most action takes place during
peacetime, 1986, at Guantanamo Bay, a name with different resonances
today. Two enlisted Marines are being tried for murder growing out of a
“Code Red” or hazing episode. Many men in the unit despised the murder
victim, Pfc. Santiago, as a malingerer and complainer. There is no
question that actions of the accused led to Santiago’s death. Unclear
is whether it was just horseplay hazing that got out of line, an
unfortunate accident, or what.
In interviews, Sorkin has explained that
he got the idea for the play from his sister Deborah, who, fresh out of
law school, served in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps. A case
she worked about two accused enlisted men is the direct model for the
action of A Few Good Men, and the actual defense lawyer, a
novice on his first case, is the prototype of seemingly feckless Lt.
j.g. Daniel Kaffee (Jonathan Self), who in the play is known for his
preference for plea bargaining. The character representing the
playwright’s sister, the cool, self-possessed Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway
(Victoria Haynes), outranks the defense team of Kaffee and Lt. j.g. Sam
Weinberg (Kevin Sebastian) and initially conflicts with them. These are
attractive leads, but there is no romance among them.
What startled the Sorkin siblings and
enlivens so much of the first act is the deadpan portrayal of Marine
culture, in which exacting discipline produces automaton-like dialogue
never heard elsewhere in American life. Stylistically, Sorkin is
contrasting A Few Good Men with the other great Navy courtroom drama, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, where
the recruits during wartime talk like laid-back regular guys, except
for defense attorney Barney Greenwald’s oration in the latter. Here the
presentation of a kind of homegrown Prussian subculture, melded
sometimes with militant evangelical Christianity, is not just what
makes the play interesting, it’s much of what it’s about.
An advantage in knowing how the action
comes out, not to be revealed here, allows the audience to see the
counter-intuitive way Sorkin introduces and develops characters. Kaffee
first seems to be an irresponsible lightweight, the son of a famous
jurist, who has not yet measured up himself. He’s a bit rude to Joanne,
the stand-in for the playwright’s sister, seemingly jealous of her
higher rank and her interference. In a moment of delicious
self-perception he wonders aloud why he’s been assigned to the case if
so many people think he’s a jerk. We are slow to pin our hopes on him,
but we do.
The script surprises us again with the
relationship between Kaffee and the prosecutor, Lt. Jack Ross (Aaron
Seeburger), who almost seems a better pal than the rest of the defense
team of Weinberg and Galloway. And we find almost appealing the top-dog
commander, Lt. Col. Nathan Jessup (Kyle Kennedy), who disarms military
bluster with the offer of “Have a gumball?” Without giving too much
away, it is Jessup whose roaring of the play’s best-known line—“You
can’t handle the truth!”—is the climax of the second act.
Although playwright Sorkin did plenty of
legwork to assure accuracy, the script is rife with errors, as Marine
champions have long complained. The term “Code Red” is an invention; it
should be “blanket party.” Marines do not salute while indoors unless
under arms. The charge of “Conduct Unbecoming a U.S. Marine” does not
exist. It should be “. . .Unbecoming an Officer and a Gentlemen” or an
“Article 133,” and only an officer, not an enlisted man, would be
charged. It’s valuable to keep these life lessons in mind while
watching A Few Good Men, but they never undermine the dramatic
payoff in the second act, any more than Shakespeare’s thinking there
was a coast to Bohemia ruins The Winter’s Tale.
Just staging such a meaty drama in a season that has included musical froth like 8-Track: The Sounds of the ’70s credits producing artistic director Kerby Thompson’s operations at Cortland Repertory. A Few Good Men calls
for a big cast and performers with crisp, well-trained voices, not to
mention Marine discipline. Some unfortunate actors must stand at stiff
attention for the 2½-hour duration because veteran director Bill
Kincaid employs the Brechtian device of having off-scene performers
witness the central action and add atmosphere to it.
At the center of the action is the
evolving duel between the slow-to-mature Kaffee and the
knows-more-than-he-lets-on Jessup. Jonathan Self’s Kaffee is flawed,
and Kyle Kennedy’s Jessup is driven by higher motives than the call to
duty; both performers give wonderfully layered portrayals. Victoria
Haynes’ Joanne Galloway defines the post-feminist officer, ready to
take non-conventional views but just as resolved as the guys when
pressed. Kevin Sebastian’s Weinberg offers what scant comic relief
there is but he’s also an inversion of the familiar Jewish funnyman:
He’s the most domestic of all the principals.
Many among the 18 players are critical to Good Men’s
tone and tension. Key are the two accused killers, the darker, more
obsessive Dawson (Jesse Gabbard) and the fairer, less assertive Downey
(Parker Pogue). The way they deliver dialogue, totally devoid of
emotion, tells us so much more than their words say. Theirs is a closed
system impossible to crack, at least from the bottom up. Even giggly
Cpl. Howard (Mark Reeve), unaware of the gravity of the trial, is not
going to give anything away. Conscience-stricken Capt. Markinson
(Michael Kreutz) self-destructs before we can find what he knows. And
fanatical Lt. Kendrick (Brent Bradley) is the most frightening of all,
portending that even greater grief lies beyond the trial.
Jo Winiarski’s harsh bare set,
unsparingly lighted by Shawn Boyle, is flanked by long walkways that
allow deliberate entrances and exits. Jennifer Paar’s authentic
costumes fit better than Government issue.
A Few Good Men is the greatest
stage work ever written by the graduate of SU Drama, and as Cortland
Rep’s favorable ruling attests, 19 years have only sharpened its bite.
This production runs through Saturday, Aug. 16. See Times Table for information.
A chorus line?: From left, Brent
Bradley, Jesse Gabbard, Jefferson McDonald, Kyle Hines and Myles McHale
in Cortland Repertory’s A Few Good Men.