Gérald Sibleyras's “Le Vent des Peupliers” (“The Wind in the Poplars”), adapted for the English stage by Tom Stoppard as “Heroes,” is the second offering this year at the Hampton Theatre Company in Quogue, and quite an offering it is, too.
The three-man show, featuring Tom Gustin, George Loizides, and Cyrus Newitt, revolves around the conversations of three World War I French veterans at a home for old soldiers in 1959. Over the course of the 90-minute, no-intermission production, the three ruminate on whether the head nun is killing off other veterans, as well as on protecting “their” terrace, the female orgasm, planning an escape, whether the stone dog on the balcony is actually alive, and the far-off poplar trees “subtly swaying in the wind.” The play takes place over a two-week period in late summer.
The men establish their characters within the first five minutes. Henri, played by Mr. Newitt, has lived at the home for a quarter-century and is quite happy with the way things are. Mr. Loizides’s Philippe dozes off frequently due to a piece of shrapnel in his head and doesn’t enjoy confrontation. Mr. Gustin’s Gustave is a brash and bitter recent arrival.
It is true that shortly after experiencing the horrors of the Great War, many who saw battle retired into nursing homes, regardless of age, unable to face the rigors of civilian life due to deep and incurable wounds, both physical and emotional.
This sounds like the setting for a tragedy, full of long monologues and slow reveals. Instead, the evening vacillates between an episode of “Seinfeld” and “Waiting for Godot.” Characters talk a little about a lot of things, and, to paraphrase the author John Hollander, “Nothing much happens and nobody screws.” But it doesn’t matter — the audience often finds itself dissolved in laughter. It’s a little like the Mad Hatter’s tea party: once you understand that everyone is “tolerably deranged,” as one character puts it, it’s a smooth ride.
Unlike the usual blindingly quick repartee of a play written by Sir Tom, the jokes in “Heroes” take time to rise, like a soufflé. The three actors play their parts with ease and grace and poignancy, especially when moments of post-traumatic stress come to the forefront.
But these are gentlemen who wear suits and ties even in an old soldiers’ home, and those moments are few, hidden under chivalry and humor. Instead, the play focuses on freedom, and the final moment, though small, leaves an indelible image. “Heroes” won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2006 from the Society of London Theatre.
Andrew Botsford ably directs the production, and as always James Ewing’s set design and Sebastian Paczynski’s lighting are subtle, believable, and beautiful. One can almost smell the breeze rustling the trees. A soundtrack that includes the vibrato tones of Edith Piaf adds to the ambiance.