Back around the time of World War I, it was said that it was bad luck at night for three soldiers to light their cigarettes from the same match. The theory was that by the time the third person lit up, a sniper out in the dark would have had time to notice the flare of the flame, focus his rifle, and end that last chap's smoking habit permanently.
, now at the Clague Playhouse, three veterans from "The War to End All Wars" (insert rueful, slightly crazed laughter here) have staked out their territory on a terrace at a bucolic French military hospital. Each of the men has at least one apparent infirmity and, in the year 1959, they spend their time breaking each other's testicles. In the hands of playwright Gerald Sibleyras and translator Tom Stoppard, this amounts to a bit of theatrical confetti that is borderline bland and comfortable to a fault.
But happily, the on-point cast under the crisp direction of Anne McEvoy manages to cadge some poignancy and relevance out of what, in other iterations, might have devolved into a Gallic version of Hogan's Heroes
. And a sub-plot involving the guys' plan to escape their confines and venture off, towards the swaying poplars they frequently admire through binoculars, eventually begins to gain some heft.
The alpha male in this trio is Gustave, a curmudgeon of the first water who finds fault with picnics, birthday parties, and every single month of the year. In this juicy role, Robert Hawkes fairly drools through his perma-scowl as he lands every punchline with the stick-the-landing certainty of Simone Biles.
Gustave's favorite target in their insular terrace-world is Henri, a man beset by a leg injury and the ability to observe snatches of reality while his compatriots are absorbed in various flights of fancy. Bob Goddard brings a stabilizing sense of rationality to the proceedings and often triggers laughs with his nicely modulated reactions to the other two fellows' antics.
Rounding out the ensemble is the venerable Cleveland actor Ron Newell, who invests the slightly brain-damaged Philippe with a lovely sensibility. Philippe caught some shrapnel with his skull during the War and he now passes out momentarily, only to wake up with a start and yell about attacking "from the rear." That repeated line sets up the clumsiest joke of the show, and simultaneously wins the award for "The Most Laborious Set-up for a Lame Sexual Double Entendre." And that is a category with some (ahem) stiff competition.
As good as they are individually, these three actors are even better together. Using a reference from the World War I era, Hawkes and Newell and Goddard are as smoothly efficient as the renowned Chicago Cubs' double-play combo of Tinkers to Evers to Chance. And like those baseball Hall of Famers, the Clague troika never misses a beat.
The script evidently benefits from a translation by the acclaimed British playwright, since many moments display the distinctive squiggle-and-thump rhythm of Stoppard's best comedic work. Those jocular moments sparkle in the context of aging men exploring the soft, frayed edges of elder small talk.
And as the gentlemen contemplate on their fore-doomed escape, the humor is mixed with pathos. We see how these three, along with ex-soldiers of all eras, are often hamstrung, frustrated and defeated by the physical and mental debts their service engendered. But through all that, hope endures.
This thought is beautifully encapsulated in the final tableau struck by the actors—three on a lucky match of their own making—as they imagine the flights they might have taken.
Through February 9 at Clague Playhouse, 1371 Clague Road, Westlake, 440-331-0403, clagueplayhouse.org
Christine Howey is a former stage actor and director, and is currently executive director of Literary Cleveland.