By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
There’s nothing like a cracking courtroom drama! If you think about it, a play set in a courtroom is pretty much theater boiled down to its essence. You’ve got your good guys and your bad (clearly defined so you know who to root for), the exposition can be handled directly (“Where were on the night of January 15?”) instead of trying to finesse it as dialogue (“Do you remember that cold night in the middle of winter when nobody could find you? I was wondering if…”) and the play’s climax is simple and unambiguously delivered (“Members of the jury, have you reached your verdict?”)
Popular favorites include Witness for the Prosecution, 12 Angry Jurors (né Men) and Inherit the Wind. In the subgenre of military courtroom dramas, we find The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, Breaker Morant and the latest at Pittsburgh Public Theatre, Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men.
A Few Good Men continues through October 13. Pittsburgh Public Theater, Downtown. 412/316-1600. www.ppt.org
I think I’m right in saying (and I’m sure one of you bitches will let me know if I’m not) that this production is – possible tours aside – the first A Few Good Men ever seen on a Pittsburgh stage. I couldn’t figure out why until I actually saw it … it’s an 18 person cast! For a non-musical! And 17 of them are men! Take a tip from someone who labored in the gulag of local theater for many, many years … having to cast that many men in one play would have given me a migraine.
In any event, A Few Good Men is the work that put Sorkin on the entertainment map. The show opened on Broadway in a very successful, Tony-nominated production in 1989. Two years later the film version made an even bigger splash and the next thing you know there’s Sports Center, An American President, Money Ball, The Social Network and The West Wing. (Coincidently, Sorkin has just returned to Broadway with another courtroom drama – his adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.)
On Guantánamo Bay, a marine private has been killed in what seems to have been a hazing-gone-bad and the legal proceedings against the two marines charged looks open-and-shut. They’re assigned a callow, smart-alecky Navy lawyer, Daniel Kaffee who’s already to enter a plea bargain when another Navy lawyer, Jo Galloway, gums up the works by forcing Kaffee to understand the human cost of his laissez-faire approach.
Pretty soon higher-ups get involved and suddenly Kaffee, Galloway and another Navy lawyer, Sam Weinberg, seem to have found themselves facing off against the entire United States military. The first act is the set-up, introducing all the characters … especially Sorkin’s villain, the monstrous Commander Jessep. (And no, I’m not going to quote the famous line.) And the second act is the trial.
Anyone with even the slightest exposure to Sorkin’s writing will immediately recognize the crisp, condensed, smart and funny dialogue. Ably assisted by Marya Sea Kaminski’s limber and laser precise direction, this Public Theatre production rides like an express train (although I wasn’t crazy about the fussy military Riverdances in between scenes.) Sorkin’s written a huge entertainment and this production tackles that summit effortlessly.
I do have one nagging thought – not about the production but the script. As any fan of West Wing knows (and I’m one) there’s no denying that Sorkin has a thing for the patriarchy. His is definitely a man’s world and A Few Good Men reflects that. Sorkin condemns Jessep’s toxic masculinity without seeming to realize that it isn’t a flaw of military culture, it’s a feature; Jessep is the natural, ultimate extension of “Us vs. Them” and Sorkin studiously refuses to explore that.
But before I end up in Gitmo myself, let’s get back to the show
Burke Moses is a leonine Jessep; his bloodless, calculating intelligence makes the moments of venality and attack even more chilling. Doug Harris gives the role of Kaffee a compelling sense of an emotional journey through the play’s events and draws us into his story.
It’s not always easy playing a woman in SorkinWorld©, but Alison Weisgall makes Galloway an immediate, forceful presence and J. Alex Noble gets plenty of laughs as the wisecracking side-kick Weinberg.
Jason McCune is truly frightening playing the murderous sociopath Kendrick, Cotter Smith finds a great deal of humanity in the conflicted Markinson while Ryan Patrick Kearney and Michael Patrick Trimm make us care about the marines at the center of the trial. There’s an additional 154 people in the cast all deserving mention but I just don’t type fast enough to meet my deadline.
It’s a cracking good time.