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You might never have had the opportunity to hateTweet your way through an episode of The Newsroom had Aaron Sorkin not written A Few Good Men, the chewy military courtroom drama that hit big on Broadway in 1989 and at the movies in 1992. Twenty-five years later, the play that made Sorkin a beloved and then divisive brand still cuts a dashing figure in its dress whites, and Jeremy Skidmore’s new production for Keegan Theatre has a physical kineticism to match its author’s impressive (and self-impressed) verbal brio. The show runs nearly three hours with intermission, and has probably three scenes that could be jettisoned without loss. Yet it never lags. Buzz-cut young men in fatigues run in formation and sing marching songs over the scene changes, and if these interstitials become repetitive, it’s seemingly by design, a successful bid to convey the rigid patterns of military life.
Just in case you’ve never caught Rob Reiner’s movie version (also scripted by Sorkin) in 20-minute increments on basic cable, the plot concerns two adolescent Marines—riflemen in a security company at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, back before it found fame as an extralegal purgatory—on trial for the murder of one of their brethren. Their lawyer, a Harvard grad sleepwalking through his scholarship-repaying three-year stint in the Navy, wants to get them a plea bargain and get back to his softball games, but an Internal Affairs investigator (and the only woman in the play), who suspects the Marines are covering for their superiors, won’t allow it. Nor, intriguingly, will the accused themselves, who would sooner accept a life sentence than admit to a guilt they do not feel.
And so the cocky Harvard lawyer is reluctantly persuaded to turn on his latent genius and actually give a shit. Do I even need to tell you that Tom Cruise played the part in the film? It would be Chris Pine if they were making the movie today.
That’s one reason the movie casts a long shadow: Nearly every role in it was occupied by someone who remains, two decades later, a giant movie star or a recognizable character actor. But even with that handicap, many of the actors populating Skidmore’s tenacious version stand out.
The best of them is Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as that Harvard lawyer. His confident, winsome performance, admitting just the right glimmer of doubt, proves him plenty capable of carrying a big show on his shoulders. Brianna Letourneau is commanding, too, as the Internal Affairs lawyer prodding him to do right by his clients, even when they are, from his point of view, uncooperative. Yes, she’s more a midwife for the betterment of the male lead than a fully developed character in her own right, but Sorkin’s woman problem is less glaring here than in things he would write later, perhaps because the story is set in the predominantly male society of the armed forces.
The villains don’t fare as well. Sorkin doesn’t try to mask his contempt of the more, well, militant wing of the military, or of religious fundamentalists, so it’s left to the actors to make these characters live. As Kendrick, a condescending, Bible-thumping Marine lieutenant, Jonathan Feuer struggles to find his way in. More damagingly, Mark A. Rhea, Keegan’s artistic chair, can’t help but feel caricatured in his grunting take on the big bad, Col. Nathan “You Can’t Handle the Truth” Jessup. Parroting Jack Nicholson’s spitting delivery of the play’s most famous line would surely be a mistake, but swallowing it, as he does here, doesn’t satisfy, either.
Steven Royal’s split-level set is dominated by a huge, felled American flag that spills its stars and bars all over stage left like a gut-shot Marine leaking blood. (The “flagpole” is actually a ramp the actors walk and stand on. To their credit they never look like they’re afraid they’re going to slip, which would destroy the illusion of Marine discipline.) At first it seems hopelessly goofy. But if one chooses to take the play as a warning of the dangers of the military becoming a self-selecting, extremist caste rather than a cross-section of the nation it defends, that kicked-over flag looks less and less like an overstatement.