The Siegel Column

4 1/2 Stars: Journey's End

War is hell. Theater is heaven. Every now and then the twain do meet and, with exceptional plays like the revival of Journey's End, which opened last night at the Belasco Theatre, one can experience the fires of hell protected by the fourth wall of heaven. This refreshingly old-fashioned play, with stiff-upper-lip English characters, reminds us with a piercing dramatic honesty that the tragedy of war is truly a universal subject. It may take place during World War I but its message applies to any war, any where.

In the sense that any genuinely truthful play about war must be fundamentally anti-war in nature, Journey's End is a searing account of the wanton waste that takes place when nations meet on the field of battle. To its credit then and now, this landmark 1929 play by R.C. Sherriff is not a piece that makes its points on a soap box. Its characters are men who do, in fact, believe in God and country. By turns brave and fearful, they exist as if they are real people caught in circumstances beyond not only their own control, but also their own understanding. What makes this play so particularly tragic is that nothing has really changed in the nearly eight decades since it was originally produced.

As a theatrical experience with an emotional wallop, give credit to not only the timeless script but also to a dedicated ensemble led by an electric Hugh Dancy as Lt. Stanhope, a man suffering from a heroism on the brink of burning his soul to ashes. Dancy plays a beloved commanding officer who must knowingly send the people he cares for most on a mission that is, at once, both pointless and suicidal. Dancy's performance is a highwire act of perilously controlled hysteria. He is countered by the soulful and soothing performance of Boyd Gaines as a fellow officer with the apt nickname of "Uncle."

Jefferson Mays is given an above-the-title billing that seems a trifle generous but he is nonetheless very effective and funny as the cook for all the officers. Stark Sands brings a winning innocence to the pivotal role of Raleigh, a brand new officer, freshly arrived at the front and an old friend of Stanhope's.

The play takes place entirely in the officer's dugout, lit (ostensibly) only by candles and a shaft of light from a doorway that leads out into the trenches. In other words, this is a dark play in more ways than one. Under the otherwise pointed direction of David Grindley, lighting designer Jason Taylor has managed to make the faces of the actors discernible only to those sitting relatively close to the stage. Further away, all of the actor's faces are shrouded in shadows. They appear to be giving superb performances except you won't be able to fully appreciate the detail of their work from seats at any great distance. But even if you can't see expressions on faces, you can certainly hear the thunderous sounds of war, boomingly designed by Gregory Clarke.

A powerful piece of theater, Journey's End is not an artifact from another age but, rather, a fact that is art for our age.

4 Stars: Blind Lemon Blues

Kudos to Lillias White for lending her star power as well as her talent to Blind Lemon Blues, thereby turning a hard sell revue about an almost forgotten blues singer into a hot ticket show at the York Theatre. Most impressive about Ms. White's participation in this project is the fact that she is not its star; she is, in fact, in what you might call the chorus. But no one, we suspect, walks away from this scintillating show unhappy, even if they originally went thinking they'd see Ms. White in a star turn.

This is a highly stylized revue that features the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson in an almost non-stop cavalcade of songs, most of which you won't know but will wish you did. The performances by Akin Babatunde (co-creator of the show along with Alan Govenar) and the rest of the cast (including Lillias White) are, at their least, mesmerizing, and at their peak, stunning.

The show closes at the end of this weekend. If you can't get a ticket, you'll be crying the blues.

4 Stars: The Fever

We caught up to the revival of Wallace Shawn's The Fever, a play we saw at The Public when it was originally presented, and we were struck that what was once a piece of fierce downtown work has been transformed by time rather swiftly, at that - into something approaching a modern-day classic.

A one-person show that is performed by its author, The Fever continues to retain its originality, but in its current production at Theatre Row it feels far more intimate, aided and abetted, no doubt, by the champagne party that takes place one-half hour before the play begins on its stage, hosted by Mr. Shawn himself who chats amiably with his patrons before serving them up his own special brand of brilliance.

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

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