"A Few Good Men" is a court-martial drama, but the chief question it raises isn't about guilt or innocence, but rather: What is the definition of honor?
Written by relative newcomer Aaron Sorkin, the play, which opened at the Mechanic Theatre last night, has a rip-roaring cliffhanger of a plot: The year is 1986 and two Marines have confessed to the murder of a member of their unit during a hazing-like disciplinary action known as a Code Red. The military wants the case out of the way as quickly as possible; is the confession part of a coverup?
The mystery alone is enough to keep an audience engrossed -- particularly in the hands of this largely top-notch cast, directed with military and theatrical precision by Don Scardino. In fact, the melodramatic elements work so well that the good guys' eventual victory elicits applause.
And yet, at the heart of this mystery is an even more compelling one -- the investigation of the nature of honor. Sorkin couches this in the form of a character study of Lt. j.g. Daniel A. Kaffee, the Navy lawyer assigned to defend the accused. Kaffee is a slacker with a reputation for plea-bargaining. He doesn't believe in anything, including himself, but he is defending men whose belief in the Marine Corps is so strong that it overshadows everything else in their lives.
Michael O'Keefe's empathetic portrayal of this wisecracking, Yoo-Hoo-guzzling attorney is the chief humanizing element in a play that borders on being politically one-sided. In the end, Kaffee not only teaches the Corps a lesson, the Corps teaches him how to stand up for himself.
His primary opponent is Col. Nathan Jessep, head of the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the murder occurred. Jessep is the type of intimidating character that can easily fall into caricature. But Scott Sowers gives him credible proportions. He is aided by the fact that the playwright has toned down Jessep's climactic courtroom scene, making it more realistic than in the original Broadway production.
As the accused -- jokingly dubbed the "Stepford Marines" -- Keith Diamond and David Van Pelt are frighteningly rigid. Paul Winfield is firm but fatherly as their judge. But as Kaffee's over-achieving co-counsel, Alyson Reed seems one-dimensional, which is possibly a fault of the role. And, Jordan Lage is lackluster as ' 'TC supposedly crackerjack prosecutor.
Playwright Sorkin sold "A Few Good Men" to the movies even before it was produced on stage (Tri-Star is filming it now.) With its series of short scenes, the script seems highly cinematic. However, on Ben Edwards' two-level stage set, where the action cuts back and forth between Cuba and Washington, past and present, it also bristles with theatricality. Don't wait for the movie. See it live. You may end up saluting.
"A Few Good Men" continues at the Mechanic Theatre through Feb. 9; call (410) 625-1400.