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Journey's End

David Grindley's revival of R.C. Sherriff's play about Brits in World War I is explosive.

Hugh Dancy and Justin Blanchard in Journey's End
(© Paul Kolnik)
The British are often applauded for keeping a stiff upper lip through the worst of times. There are moments, however, when that lip can begin to tremble. R.C. Sherriff's 1929 play Journey's End is one of those extended instances. Director David Grindley triumphantly revived the work in London three years ago and has now transferred that production to Broadway with an all-new cast headed by Hugh Dancy, Boyd Gaines, and Jefferson Mays. The result is as explosive as Gregory Clarke's ultimately ear-splitting and terrifying sound design.

The three-act play (presented here with only one intermission) covers the better part of three days in 1918, when a group of officers and enlisted men are preparing for one of World War I's crucial campaigns. Sherriff, who was in the trenches at St. Quentin and lived to tell the grim tale, transmuted his recollections into this take-no-prisoners play. Because it first appeared in London 11 years after the armistice ended what was naively considered to be the war to finish all wars, Journey's End has been interpreted to be both a tribute to valor in battle (which is how Sherriff himself viewed it) and a graphic display of war's horrors and futility.

Nearly 80 years later, Sherriff's churning vision will mean much to contemporary audiences, especially those who support the troops fighting the war in Iraq but not the troop build-up there. Today's patrons will recognize the shell-shock that some characters exhibit in Journey's End, although the devastating condition now goes by the fancier name of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The first part of the play shows the men of the East Surrey Regiment coping with the battlefield's unexpected silences and tedium. They enter and exit the dugout to comfort, amuse, and command one another while soldier-servant Mason (Jefferson Mays) sees to their culinary needs. The second part is taken up with the planning and aftermath of a late afternoon raid on the enemy that's meant to gather information about the forthcoming German offensive. (Jonathan Fensom designed the beamed hut to Sherriff's specifications, although he doesn't bother with a muddy floor.)

The most noticeable figure showing cracks in his valiant demeanor throughout this period is twentyish Captain Stanhope (Dancy), an efficient leader who has taken to excessive drinking as a way to weather the war's lulls and flare-ups. Stanhope's fragile equilibrium is further tested when 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh (Stark Sands), the brother of the young woman Stanhope expects to marry, is assigned to the company.

Raleigh himself eventually has reason to show the debilitating effects of battle. So does 2nd Lieutenant Hibbert (Justin Blanchard), who's feigning neuralgia to shirk duty. It's Hibbert who, after being talked out of his despair by Stanhope, utters the thoroughly English line "Yes. Rather. It's awfully decent of you." This is indicative of the play's non-obscene language and smacks of the stiff-upper-lip mentality that's definitively commemorated here.

Indeed, several other officers and men unflaggingly exhibit the "Cheero" attitude thought necessary to maintain morale under trying circumstances. Among them are heavy-set 2nd Lieutenant Trotter (John Ahlin) and Lieutenant Osborne (Boyd Gaines), known as "Uncle" for his avuncular manner, who reads aloud from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland in order to send Sherriff's hardly subtle bulletin about war's absurdity.

Under Grindley's seasoned direction, the cast acts with the fortitude and finesse of a well-trained platoon. Dancy shows all the colors at play in patrician breeding under fire. Gaines is wise and stoic as Osborne; Mays is a reliable, obliging Mason; and Sands shines as the innocent, well-meaning Raleigh. Of the others in the polished ensemble, Ahlin is hugely likeable as Trotter and Blanchard cowers beautifully as Hibbert.

As Sherriff's action crescendoes to its loud climax, the bloodied gallantry depicted is not meant to make a pretty picture, although the English who flocked to see the original production perhaps considered the play's unflinching approach a form of belated closure on the most calamitous period in their recent history.

Journey's End has scarcely less impact now in its representation of man's goodness trumped by senselessly malevolent forces. Sherriff stipulates that, as the play concludes, "the timber props of the door cave slowly in, sandbags fall and block the passage to the open air" -- but Grindley forgoes this stage picture. He knows that the point about literal and figurative collapse has already been made.