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The Hero

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Kevin Bernard and Casandera Lollar.
Photo by Jarka Vojtaššáková.

As Tina Turner famously sang in the 1985 cult classic movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, "We don't need another hero." That hit theme song offers a succinct and most apt description of the lesson to be learned from the revival of Gilbert Emery's 1921 biting domestic drama The Hero, being performed by a strong ensemble cast of talented Equity actors at the Metropolitan Playhouse.

What is a hero anyway? Is it former Newark Mayor (now New Jersey Senator) Cory Booker running to the rescue of freezing dogs and neighbors trapped in burning buildings? Or, is it, as Os, the title character in The Hero, says to his nephew: "a guy that does somethin' he wouldn't ‘a' done if he'd ‘a' stopped to think."

Oswald ("Os") Lane (Christian Rozakis) is an authentic hero of the Cory Booker mold, back home from World War I covered in medals, walking with a cane, and carrying a cute rescued pup. Who could resist?

Unfortunately, Os is also one of those fellows who ooze charm from every pore, and who trail a history of misdeeds for which they take no responsibility. If it's true as they say in the psych textbooks, that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, then Os more than fills the bill. He only wound up in the Foreign Legion and fighting in the war because that is where he found himself after running away from some serious problems involving a bad check and a pregnant girlfriend.

Still, it is easy to see why his mother Sarah (Emily Jon Mitchell), his sister-in-law Hester (Casandera Lollar), the housekeeper Marthe (Becca Ballenger), who is a Belgian refugee the family has taken in, and his young nephew Andy (Michael Fader) are enthralled when he shows up unannounced on their doorstep. Sarah has been fretting over him ever since he was a little boy. Marthe sees him as her protector and savior. Hester has filled her head with patriotic images of everyone even remotely connected with the war. And Andy sees his uncle as one of his toy soldiers come to life. To all of them, Os is the embodiment of all that is glorious and good and true.

Except, of course, he isn't.

Only Os's brother Andrew (Kevin Bernard, a standout in what would seem to be a thankless role) has his doubts, especially when weeks go by and Os has declined to seek a job or find a place of his own to live. Andrew has always been the steady one, trudging away as an insurance salesman, barely keeping his family afloat financially. His constant struggle to make ends meet is fast becoming, as Thoreau put it, a life of "quiet desperation."

What the playwright has done most effectively is to have us (without our realizing it) see everything filtered through Hester's eyes. She is bored, restless, and frustrated with the constrictions of her life, and she has long nurtured romantic dreams of something far more glamorous for herself. Because we see the world as Hester sees it, Sarah comes off as a crotchety old lady, Marthe as a helpless war orphan, Andrew as a boring fuddy-duddy, and Os as an emotionally and physically attractive alternative to all she is fed up with. They may be clichés, but they are Hester's clichés.

Events go into an inevitable downhill slide with the start of Act II, and though there is an air of melodrama to the unfolding plot, there are a number of unexpected twists throughout the second half—from Marthe's new-found determination, to Hester's potential fall from grace (will she follow in the footsteps of her namesake Hester Prynne?), to some surprising new acts of heroism.

It would be difficult to argue that The Hero is a rediscovered masterwork. There is some mustiness to it now, and even when it appeared on Broadway back in 1921, it only ran for 80 performances. Yet at the time, shortly after the end of World War I, some found much to praise for its satiric jab at hero worship and the all-too-humanness of those labeled as heroes. The Hero ultimately was included in the volume of "Best Plays of 1921-22," alongside such other better known works as Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie and Clemence Dane's A Bill of Divorcement. I would say another strength would lie in its depiction of a working class family trying to keep its head above water and its dignity intact, offering hints of some of the ideas that Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller would explore more fully in later years.

Under Alex Roe's direction, the cast does a fine job of bringing their characters to life despite being drawn by the playwright without much complexity. Emily Jon Mitchell's nervous and anxious Sarah seems to be born of her frustration at having lost her husband and her home and being forced to live with her son's family. Christian Rozakis as Os exudes just the right amount of charm and sincerity to lead one to hope he has outgrown his shady past. And Casandera Lollar does a splendid job depicting Hester's transformation from someone yearning to escape, to someone who learns to appreciate what she does have.

But best of all is Kevin Bernard as Andrew, a man you would expect to be found singing "Mr. Cellophane" in a production of Chicago. As Bernard plays him, Andrew is full of annoying quirks—snapping his fingers, whistling tuneless airs, and fumblingly telling the corniest of jokes. And yet, surprisingly, he emerges in his own plodding and genial way to be a real hero himself, the quiet kind of hero who keeps home and hearth together for everyone else. Maybe this is the real message of the play after all.

The Hero
Through March 30
Metropolitan Playhouse, in the Cornelia Connelly Center at 220 East Fourth Street (easternmost door) between Avenues A & B in the East Village
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