George Segal, Len Cariou, and Richard Benjamin in Heroes 
(© Michael Lamont)
George Segal, Len Cariou, and Richard Benjamin in Heroes
(© Michael Lamont)
It is the late summer/early autumn of 1959, and three veterans of World War I pass away the hours, the days, and the rest of their lives at a military retirement home in the French countryside. "Pass away" is an appropriate pun, considering that these three men, who have survived the death and destruction of a terrible war, now joke about their impending mortality and that of their comrades in the nun-run facility that is now their home.

There's not a whole lot more beyond weak jokes and a Godot-like sense of waiting in Gérald Sibleyras' rather tepid relationship comedy, Heroes, adapted by Tom Stoppard. The play is now receiving its American premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, under the direction of Thea Sharrock, who helmed the play's 2005 London premiere at the Wyndham Theatre.

Unfortunately, Heroes fails to rise up to its valiant title. Pale, often self-conscious, writing, a listless storyline, and superficially drawn characters give theater vets George Segal (Gustave), Len Cariou (Henri), and Richard Benjamin (Philippe) little to dig into. The three friends fuss and bicker amongst themselves, and make elaborate plans to run off to Indo-China and escape the clutches of the formidable Sister Madeleine, who runs the retirement home with the steel hand of a commander-in-chief.

Eventually, they whittle their wonderful fantasy adventure down to a simple expedition to a nearby stand of poplars, where a flock of geese fly overhead. They are where they are, and where they always will be, and everything of consequence in their lives has already happened. There's really not much left to do but to spend the present ruminating about the past or daydreaming about a never-going-to-happen future.

Sure, there are little foibles and eccentricities to give each man some measure of distinction. The curmudgeonly but charming Gustave fears the outside world, makes a pet out of a 200-pound stone dog, and is the de facto leader of the group; Henri has a lame leg, a bright sense of humor, and an eye for the ladies; Philippe fears Sister Madeleine is plotting his death and is prone to exaggerated fainting spells -- the result of shrapnel still lodged in his head. But these are details drawn in sand; there is no depth or true substance to them, and with a single sweep of the hand they are easily destroyed.

The production elements are much stronger than the script. Lighting designer Howard Harrison paints the sky in shades of dull gray to brilliant blue, and golden rusty hues of autumn, while Jonathan Burke offers subtle environmental underscoring with his sound design. Robert Jones has designed a lovely large terrace set, complete with stone wall, fading vines and summer flowers, and a sturdy row of trees standing straight as soldiers behind it.

It's too bad there's not more action or additional characters to fill it out. Giving Sister Madeleine a physical presence, for example, could give the men an opponent to rally against, and also push them to deeper levels of exploration and discovery. Perhaps then, with a visible enemy to face down and conquer, the real heroes could finally emerge.