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There are a few good things on view in "A Few Good Men," at the Theater Royal Haymarket, but not enough to justify the price of a West End ticket, even if you do get to see a former star of television's "The West Wing" live on stage. Yes, here's Rob Lowe following suit where David Schwimmer and Val Kilmer have already gone this season: forsaking the safety net of celluloid to tread the London boards, in this case the belated British premiere of an Aaron Sorkin play that reached Broadway more than 15 years ago. And that has now, as the British like to say, more than passed its sell-by date. (Sorkin, of course, segued from an embyronic playwriting career to find his fortune writing for "The West Wing.")
Sorkin's play would seem hopelessly formulaic and trite whatever the broader political climate, but it certainly doesn't help to find a narrative set largely at Guantanamo Bay a place whose associations have, uh, shifted (one might say darkened) of late. Has the author accordingly revised his work? Not at all, or so we're advised in a program essay, the point being that good plays pass the test of timelessness. Facile ones, though the same essay doesn't mention this, tend to fade away, not least in a staging from the American director David Esbjornson that seems busy and stillborn at once.
At heart, the story tells of the coming into maturity of a callow Navy lawyer, Kaffee (played by Lowe), who learns to forsake his ready-made flippancy confronted with two marines accused of murdering a third. Kaffee, we learn, would rather stick to his beloved baseball than become enmeshed in the intricacies of "code red," the punishment that presumably did the doomed man in. Passing references to My Lai and the Nazis never really divert attention from the cartoonish feel of the enterprise: not for nothing does Kaffee speak in such Disneyfied patois as "zippity doo-dah." Rob Reiner's all-stops-out 1992 film of the same material relied on heavyweight casting (Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Jack Nicholson) to haul us through a plot that shifts between pretty lame male-female sparring and the contrivances of courtroom drama. ("Nobody likes her very much," Kaffee says of Galloway, the same distaff colleague whom he will, inevitably, end up liking very much.) If the banter suggests Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn on an off night, the legal theatrics give rise to one angry man, not 12: That's none other than the sharp-tongued military psycho, Jessep, whom a growling Nicholson immortalized on screen. Jack Ellis may be slightly quieter in the part, but he possesses Nicholson's manic gifts; as long as Ellis is doing the barking, you stand to attention. That's not true, alas, of most of the rest of the cast, which includes the Cruise look-alike John Barrowman better-known in Britain for his work in musicals in the throwaway part of the prosecuting attorney played in the movie by Kevin Bacon.
As the only woman in the play to count for anything, Suranne Jones seems permanently on the verge of tears, which is one way of dealing with a script that trafficks in pronouncements ("we're in the business of saving lives," Jessep says not once but twice) instead of characters.
As for Lowe? He's an underpowered, faintly synthetic presence in a part that calls for real passion. Or maybe it's just that he, like the evening's author, is simply more at home on TV.
In a city that sees no shortage of Shakespeare, it's worth pausing to pay special tribute to the Out of Joint touring version of "Macbeth," which finished an encore London engagement at the Arcola Theater on Saturday before embarking on a world tour over the next two months. (Among the cities due to be visited by Max Stafford- Clark's production are Pilzen in the Czech Republic, Thursday through Saturday; Guanajuato in Mexico, Oct. 6-8; The Hague in the Netherlands, Nov. 9-12; and both Lagos and Abuja in Nigeria, where the tour ends Nov. 20.)
What's left to be learned about the "Scottish play," the Bardic entry that trips up theater practitioners, or so it seems, more than any other?
Quite a lot, in fact. In a site-specific staging that takes the audience on an unbroken, two-hour-twenty-minute journey through different playing spaces and right into the scripted heart of darkness, "Macbeth" here marches to a martial African beat that spares no one this tragedy's merciless grip. For all its emphasis on the externals of dance, ritual and atmospheric effects, the staging opens up the play from within, examining for keeps a defining study in rampaging slaughter that implicates us all in the bloodlust.
One astonishing sequence among many invites us into a side chamber to view the aftermath of Lady Macduff's murder: 10 pence buys you a glimpse while 50 pence enables theatergoers to take a photograph. (It's up to the individual spectator to check his or her penchant for ghoulish thrill-seeking.) That the thirst for violence can be seductive accounts for the undeniable sexual sizzle of Raquel Cassidy's galvanic Lady Macbeth, who is the only white performer in an otherwise all-black cast.
The remainder of the company, headed by the sweet-faced savagery of Danny Sapani in the title role, reinvent the play as a tribal act by way of any of several untamable African countries one could name today while reminding us that Idi Amin, of all people, had his own obsession with all things Scottish. (Among other things, he was a strong advocate of Scottish self-determination.)
The result releases the witchcraft in the play from the usual hocus-pocus and lends a text rife with portents, omens and specters the power that comes from a staging in which the dead are seen quite literally to walk among the living.
At times, sheer noise overwhelms sense, literally so in the concluding moments, where Shakespeare's language is drowned out by ambient sound. But uniquely among London "Macbeths" in recent years, Stafford-Clark and his cast locate an abiding terror in this play I haven't fully heard before.
Those in Britain can still catch the production in Edinburgh (Oct. 26-30) and Bury St. Edmunds (Nov. 2-6) or elsewhere on its foreign travels. And if it's not coming to a city near you, why not seek it out? This "Macbeth" truly is a marvel.
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