For its last-ever production
at its Charles Street location, the Everyman Theatre stacked the odds in its favor. It chose a proven playwright (Tom Stoppard), a proven director (Donald Hicken), and a proven cast (Wil Love, Carl Schurr, and John Dow) to turn
into a triumphant farewell to the theater's longtime space. But somehow the firecracker got damp; it fizzles rather than explodes, and Everyman's 20-year run in Station North ends not with a bang but with a whimper.
The problems begin with Stoppard's 2006 adaptation of Gerald Sibleyras's 2003 French play,
Le Vent des Peupliers
The Wind in the Poplars
). Sibleyras's premise would seem promising: Three French veterans of World War I spend their days sunning themselves on the back veranda of a home for old soldiers in 1959, nearly 41 years after Armistice Day. As they bicker and banter like old codgers in any retirement home the world round, you brace yourself for revelations about the deeper feelings about the horrific war they fought in, the family and friends they've lost, and the mortality they're rapidly approaching.
But the disclosures never come. Instead the three men just go on bickering and bantering for 90 minutes and then it's over. True, some of the insults are cutting and some of the jokes are amusing, but no depths are plumbed and no changes occur. You get the feeling that you could have visited them on different days than the ones that Sibleyras chose and there'd be little difference. You get the feeling that you could have spent the evening with your own elderly relatives, alternately charming and annoying as they are, and have had the same pleasant, dull experience.
You might expect Stoppard's adaptation to display the same verbal sparkle as his earlier shows such as R
osencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
The Real Thing
. But his language here is rather pedestrian, as if he were worried more about documenting the way doddering old men really talk than about entertaining his audience. Director Hicken seems to have made the same mistake, giving us three very realistic old men rather than three theatrical characters whose artificially heightened eloquence and awareness might have engaged us.
The Everyman production opens with James Fouchard's strikingly handsome set. The veranda where the three men sit and chatter is all curving steps and square pillars in tan stone, with ivy trellises and a scrollwork doorframe for contrast. The curving backdrop offers an Impressionist painting of the windblown poplars from Sibleyras's title.
To the audience's left sits Henri (Dow), a silver-haired commoner who has lived at the home for 25 years and optimistically declares, "I love the month of August." In middle sits Gustave (Love), a cuckolded aristocrat and recent arrival with a gray goatee and gold medals pinned to his suit, who pessimistically responds, "I hate the month of August" and proceeds to explain why he's not too fond of the other months either. To our right sits Philippe (Schurr), a 10-year resident from a tradesman's family, who refuses to take a position on the worthiness of August.
Philippe has an increasing tendency to black out for a few moments without warning and to awaken a few moments later, shouting, "We'll take them by the rear, Captain," the explanation of which is one of the play's many half-hearted, half-funny jokes. Gustave has a phobia about leaving the property and is also afraid of women, especially the nun running the home. All these liabilities handicap the trio's plotting to take an expedition to the poplar-topped ridge facing the veranda, especially when Gustave insists that they ford a river tied to one another with a fire hose while dragging along a stone dog statue from the veranda.
Much like the play itself, the expedition never gets beyond the stage of idle talking. The three actors are all quite competent but never inspired, though it's not clear that there's much inspiration to be had from this flaccid script. The characters are constantly losing their nerve, their patience, and their train of thought, and while this approach makes them realistic old men, it doesn't win our sympathy. It merely makes us impatient with them.
Oh, well. The Charles Street location has been the site of many spectacular evenings of theater:
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
The Cripple of Innishmaan
The School for Scandal
Gem of the Ocean
I Am My Own Wife
The Cherry Orchard
All My Sons
Raisin in the Sun
in 2011 and
The Brothers Size
earlier this year.
will be long forgotten by the time Everyman stages its first knockout show at its new home on Fayette Street.