Marine Corpse

Since I'm about to deal with a murder mystery/courtoom drama -- Aaron Sorkin's 1989 Broadway hit, A Few Good Men, which is now enjoying a satisfying production at the Caldwell Theatre Company -- allow me to play Sherlock Holmes for a moment and hypothesize how this particular work came into being. Trust me, ladies and gentlemen of the readers' court, my line of logic will go a long way toward explaining my feelings about the play.

Let's suppose you have an out-of-work actor named Aaron struggling to make the theater his life but finding little support and no parts, and it's a year past his thirtieth birthday. He's hit that crucial age where it's a matter of do or die, so in the tradition of other mediocre thespians like David Mamet, Aaron decides to make play-writing his ticket to the big leagues. But his first work never gets produced, and the second one becomes part of a jumble of new plays presented at St. Clement's Church -- a long jump from the Big White Way.

Then Providence steps in and someone gives Aaron a tip. Or perhaps the inspiration comes to him in a dream: Write a movie camouflaged as a play and send it to a major Hollywood producer. In other words, ignore the traditions of theater -- like originality, soul-searching encounters, and offbeat characters. Instead, load the piece with action and hundreds of brief scenes cutting quickly into one another, and include fairly stereotypical good and bad guys, a last-minute miracle, a power-packed climax, and a happy ending.

This trick works like a charm straight out of a B movie. David Brown (producer of The Sting, Jaws, and Cocoon, and who loves satisfying shlock) gets his money-churning hands on Aaron's script, proceeds to contact a group of Broadway producers, and engineers a first-class theatrical production in New York, where the play swiftly becomes a cash cow and lays the perfect groundwork for Brown's movie version, (about to be released and starring no less than Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise).

Having seen the play but not wishing to reveal the film's entire story line, I'll give you a brief rundown of the plot-heavy piece and assure you it would make for great celluloid, even if you could never class Sorkin in the company of Mamet or Tennessee Williams. After all, he's not a playwright in this incarnation, he's a screenwriter using live actors.

As everyone probably knows by now, the Marines regularly indulge in the type of testosterone-inspired hazing that goes on in fraternity houses and on football teams. Those who fall out of line must endure severe tests of mettle and macho -- punishment dispensed by their fellow officers. No dorks or schmoes tolerated. At the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on the tense windward side that faces the "wall" between us and them, the maniacal Lt. Col. Nathan Jessup and his Bible-frothing second-in-command, Lt. Jonathan James Kendrick, order "Code Reds" for soldiers who are not living up to their standards of perfection. For instance, if a Marine doesn't wash well enough, they order a Code Red, and in no time the other guys in his bunk have to strip him and scrub him with Brillo and steel wool until he bleeds. Then they slap each other on the back and go out for a beer. Sounds like fun.

Except for poor Pfc. William Santiago -- who has an incipient heart condition and displays a nasty habit of becoming short of breath and passing out on extensive field exercises -- for whom the Code Red turns to funereal black. His fellow officers, Lance Cpl. Harold Dawson and Pfc. Louden Downey, tie him up, gag him, and start to shave his head. But Santiago's heart problem kicks in, his lungs start to bleed, and no sooner than you can say sadism, he dies. Jessup and Kendrick deny they ordered any disciplinary action and let Dawson and Downey take the rap as flat-out murderers. Dawson (a military statue) and Downey (a hillbilly idiot) do not question their sentence, because that's what it means to be a Marine: to put the Corps before oneself.

Suddenly, to serve the plot, the good guys in Washington (who? where?) start to ask questions, and three fairly inept lawyers are chosen to reopen the matter and investigate further -- but not too much. This gang-who-can't-practice-law-straight includes a starchy female, Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway, a pleasant sap, Lt. j.g. (junior grade) Sam Weinberg, and finally, the classic hero: flip, self-doubting Lt. j.g. Daniel A. Kaffee, son of a famous litigator, who received a Navy scholarship to Harvard and now can't wait until his three years of obligatory service are up so he can get the hell out of the military. He wants to plea-bargain the case and go play softball. Weinberg can't stand anyone in the Corps, so he doesn't care. But Galloway's another matter, especially when Jessup tries to demean her by asking for a blowjob. "You have an hour to kill," he snipes. "But what would I do with the other 59 minutes?" Galloway snaps back.

Now you can guess who wins, especially if you've seen any episode of Matlock or Perry Mason. The story twists and turns slightly, just enough to please the lowest common denominator, but not enough to confuse anyone without imagination. Sorkin even hammers home a premise of sorts: What is honor? What is duty? Do the men who guard our lives and freedom have the right to run amok from time to time? It's the old should-Richard-Nixon-stand-above-the-law question.

Director Kenneth Kay does a brilliant job of staging, seamlessly orchestrating a cast of twenty, a few chairs, and a desk. He also draws acceptable performances from everyone except Loretta Shanahan, who plays Galloway in such a shrill and wooden manner, you almost want to side with the old-boy bullies. As the main brute Jessup, Robert E. Riley projects the perfect amount of self-righteous sociopathology; and in a small role, Jeffrey Blair Cornell acts with honesty as Weinberg. Billy Langley as Dawson manages to express perfectly a military rigidness and still allow a strong hint of sensitivity to peek through -- a fine feat. As for Caldwell veteran Bradbury, who takes the showy lead role of Kaffee, he always has the same effect on me: nothing spectacular, almost overacting, but so ingenuous, zippy, and attractive, he seems more than ready for his own television show.

Basically, it doesn't matter whether you see A Few Good Men as a play or a movie, so I suggest the film version. It's cheaper, it will have more special effects, and the acting may be slightly better -- and you can even save on gas.

A FEW GOOD MEN by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Kenneth Kay; with Peter Bradbury, Loretta Shanahan, Jeffrey Blair Cornell, Kenneth Kay, Billy Langley, Robert E. Riley, Tom Disney, Jim Ryan, Peter Haig, Prudencio Montesino, Tyson Stephenson, Tom Wahl, Clarence Thomas, John Archie, Brandon Adams, Colin Jones, Vincent Larusso, Albert Leon, John Sama and Michael Strano. At the Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton, through December 13. Performances Tuesday -- Saturday 8:00 p.m., Sunday 7:00 p.m.; matinees Wednesday and Sunday 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $20. Call 462-5433 or 407-241-7432.

Santiago's heart problem kicks in, his lungs startto bleed, and no soonerthan you can say sadism, he dies.

STAGE NOTES
There's little doubt that Kurt Weill remains one of the the greatest geniuses in musical theater and in many ways the inventor of the modern musical. But Berlin to Broadway, the revue of his work created by Hank Kaufman and Gene Lerner, now condensed quite a bit at New Theatre, won't enthrall everyone. Weill's work with Bertold Brecht -- e.g., The Threepenny Opera -- reeks of historical significance, marvelous originality, and clever mood switches, but to the younger among us it plays more like thunder and heartburn.

When the music of Weill shifts from pre-Nazi and Nazi Germany to Broadway, where he used his operatic skills to expand the light musical form, the entries pick up, with such luscious numbers as "September Song" (lyrics by Maxwell Anderson) and "My Ship" (lyrics by Ira Gershwin). Here was a time when lyrics meant poetry and flowed flawlessly with the music. (Think the opposite of Paula Abdul.)

As for the cast there's one reason to go -- and her name is Kimberly Daniel. Majestic, convincing, and unveiling a masterful set of vocal chords perfectly suited to the work, Daniel truly hypnotizes and, through her great talent, reduces her fellow singers -- David Alt, Sally Cummings, and Rafael de Acha, and her competent pianist, Harry Richardson -- to a faraway second best. If you like or want to like Weill, see Daniel do him justice at New Theatre until December 13. Call 443-5909 for more info.

Finally, I have to add that Culture Clash -- brought to the Colony Theater by the Miami Light Project -- was brilliant, original, and one of the funniest things I've witnessed since Belushi's days at SNL. Happily, the house filled up, which to me means Miami stands ready for more than one night of challenging, cutting-edge material. This trio of Latin performance artists -- Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siquenza -- takes apart various aspects of the American experience and its impact on second-generation Latin culture -- but never from a predictable viewpoint. Their material arrives via left of left field. Imagine a cheap Santeria doll bringing back a befuddled Che Guevara, or a macho gang banger going to Heaven where he becomes an angel holding up the Virgin. Imagine writers and performers with imagination. Go, Miami Light Project -- and bring more.

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