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The Hasty Heart

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Trapped somewhere between the cold realities of war and the warm depths of human emotion is John Patrick's The Hasty Heart. The 1945 play, which is set against the background of World War II, blends despair and uncertainty with the pacifying embrace of happiness and friendship. One can't exist without the other, but are you ever sure which you're experiencing at any given time?

The vagaries of that question are intricately woven throughout the fabric of The Hasty Heart, and are lovingly displayed in the affectionate Keen Company revival of the show at Theatre Three. So devoted is director Jonathan Silverstein to highlighting the comic camaraderie shared by the play's nine characters that you might feel as though you've mistakenly wandered into a live reenactment of an early TV sitcom.

Yet it's that same borderline-hokey, mass-appeal quality that allows the play to be the sobering dose of reality it is. It's quite easy to get caught up in the enjoyable characterizations provided by the piece's central actors - they all play patients in an English war hospital, representing the breadth of Allied forces in light-hearted archetypal splendor (Kiwi is from New Zealand, Digger from Australia, and so on). But focus on this and you'll overlook the bleak, unpleasant fact that ratchets the story into motion: one of the men in this ward will die.

That's Lachlen McLachlen (Keith Nobbs), a Scottish soldier with only one barely functioning kidney and only a few weeks to live. The Colonel (Stephen Bradbury), informing Lachlen only that he has recovered from a kidney operation, places him in the ward so that he may at least die among friends. That proves easier said than done - Lachlen is solitary, unfriendly, unused to the affections of others. "I put nae value on the human animal," he says, and his dismissive treatment of the well-meaning folks in the ward, including the on-duty nurse Sister Margaret (Emily Donahoe), soon bears that out.

But could Lachlen's resolve not eventually crack, and could he not eventually warm to the men and - especially - Margaret? In plotting, The Hasty Heart is neither complex nor unpredictable, even in the late show twists that derive tension from Lachlen's discovery of the others' real motives for treating him with kindness. Decades of soaps, sitcoms, and TV movies have not been kind to the potential emotional impact of Patrick's story, and you might rightly feel you've seen most of this before.

Yet the details still satisfy: The subtle ways in which the bonds of the five men and Margaret slowly give way to Lachlen; how Lachlen's wistful desire for a kilt eventually becomes the centerpiece of the evening; the antagonistic relationship between Lachlen and Yank (the winning Chris Hutchison) that gives ways into friendship so deep, it must weather ugly times and even uglier words; the way minor comedy threads and subplots are gently applied over the poignant main story like a lace doily.

All this results in a surprisingly layered tale, one less about death than life, how we live it, and whom we celebrate it with. The hominess of Nathan Heverin's makeshift hospital set underlines the familial qualities of the play's characters, a clan of young siblings aware that they'll soon have to grow up and return to the war, but intent on forestalling the inevitable as long as possible. (Dialect coach Stephen Gabis has done an admirable job highlighting the characters' different backgrounds.)

Just about all the performers bring their characters to vivid life: The slow melting of Donahoe's clinical coolness is a joy to watch, as is the rapport between the other soldiers, played by Brian Sgambati, Paul Swinnerton, and Anthony Manna. Chris Chalk turns provides a touching portrayal of an African man who can speak but a few words of English. Only Nobbs seems a bit unsure in his work, and he lacks the focused intensity necessary to sell Lachlen's go-it-alone attitude in the play's earliest scenes. He proves much more effective when confronting surprise and gratitude toward others for the first time, or feeling the sting of their betrayal later on.

The moments Lachlen experiences this betrayal - seemingly lending credence to his stated belief that "Sorrow is born in the hasty heart" - are as vital to the play as the redemptive and humorous moments that give it its occasional been-there-done-that feeling. But in the end, it doesn't matter - true human feeling encompasses all these elements, and Patrick's insights about what gives our lives meaning remain timely today, coming from the heart, and touching it as well in this moving, entertaining, and inspiring revival.

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The Keen Company
The Hasty Heart
Through December 18
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Theater Three, 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd Floor, between 8th and 9th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444