A Miltary Courtroom Drama With a Galaxy Cast
If ever a play was meant to be a movie, it is "A Few Good Men," which opened Saturday evening at La Mirada Theatre, running through November 20th. Even before Aaron Sorkin, then a young writer and actor struggling to make his way in New York, had finished work on his new play, producer David Brown wanted to buy the film rights to the script. Sorkin wisely agreed.
Part of the deal was that Brown would also bankroll the stage version, which premiered to great acclaim on Broadway in 1989. The subsequent film, directed by Rob Reiner and starring Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and Jack Nicholson, was released three years later. In a weird way, then, “A Few Good Men” came about because of the movie that would eventually be made of it.
This historical oddity in fact tells you a lot about the play. “A Few Good Men” is a high-octane courtroom drama about a team of young military lawyers appointed to defend two marines who are accused of murdering one of their fellows at Guantanamo Bay. Pfc. William Santiago (Rodrigo Varandas), is a weak Marine at the Cuban naval base, who gets along poorly with his peers, has narced on a fellow Marine and gone outside the chain of command to request a transfer.
Although the GITMO Company Commander, Captain Matthew Markinson (Corey Jones), requests that Santiago be transferred, GITMO Base Commander Colonel Jessup secretly instructs religious fanatic Lieutenant Jonathan James Kendrick (Patrick Stafford), Santiago's platoon commander, to "train" Santiago, using a radical code of conduct — a disciplinary hazing called a “code-red.”
Soon afterward, Santiago dies. He was murdered. Accidentally? Perhaps. But scapegoats Marine Lance Corporal Harold Dawson (Michael Ocampo) and Private First Class Louden Downey (Brandon Engman) will stand trial. The plot unfolds to the tune of a high-level military conspiracy and cover-up, and along the way, the audience is treated to coercion, suicide, plea bargaining, and just about every other prime-time TV cliché of which the theatre is capable.
The pace is so relentless, the sly Perry Mason-esque moments of “I just have one more little question” are so predictable, the actors so ripping, that pretty soon one begins to feel that one is in fact watching a TV drama. The only thing to dispel this illusion is the occasional appearance of actual video footage — edited slickly in the best prime-time style, of course. But there’s a reason Director Casey Stangl renders the show like this. It’s the same reason David Brown was right when he looked at the playscript and saw a Hollywood blockbuster. The play really is constructed this way. And, combined with Cricket S. Myer’s evocative sound design and Karyn D. Lawrence’s spare lighting, the effect is quite convincing.
The cast, in toto, is above reproach – top notch professionals one and all. Doug Harris convinces as Lieutenant Daniel A. Kaffee, the laid-back, wisecracking, inexperienced lawyer for the defendants, who is first handed the case so that it will never get to court. Kaffee’s usual tactic is to charm and haggle his way toward the quickest, easiest solution. He doesn’t want to work hard, nor does he want to test himself.
Justice, or any sense that the cases he works have any moral implication, isn’t a concern for Kaffee. The reason for his disinterest is his father. Kaffee’s father was a famous civil rights lawyer who died before Kaffee graduated from law school, and he struggles to live up to his father’s reputation.
He is reluctantly teamed with tongue-in-cheek special investigator, Navy JAG Corp Lieutenant Commander Joanne Galloway (Leanne Antonio), an idealistic, determined, and vulnerable provocateuse who outranks him but describes herself as a "go-getter with a vengeance."
Both characters are battling a "bozo code of ethics," and both actors handle their smart-alecky parts with flair and an undercurrent of sexuality, but with barbed dialogue aplenty. These events, however, change Kaffee, and he mounts a valiant defense strategy which takes an unprecedented approach in court and puts the military mentality and the Marine code of honor on trial.
As the self-proclaimed provider of freedom, the deranged Colonel Nathan Jessep (played by Andy Umberger), the play’s most vivid character and Base Commander at the Navy base where the alleged murder has taken place, gives the Jack Nicholson role a run for his money. In every scene, Mr. Umberger plays marvelously before slipping the knife in and giving it the old diabolical twist. This is the role acted in the original 1989 Broadway production at Music Box Theatre by Stephen Lang, who was not nominated for a Tony Award despite his extraordinary work, which I consider an inconceivable oversight.
"I'll kill anyone in this room to protect what I'm paid to protect," announces Jessup, who is "in the business of saving lives."
Colonel Jessup reveals his great pride in his powerful position further, and the danger that comes with it, when he says, “You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances. I eat breakfast 80 yards away from 4000 Cubans who are trained to kill me. So don't for one second think you're gonna come down here, flash a badge, and make me nervous.”
In refreshing contrast, Matthew Bohrer, who plays the “third wheel” on the defense team, the subdued Lieutenant Sam Weinberg, is a constant source of civility and humanity with his wry one-liners and his expressive eyes.
Other standout performances include Sara King as the logical and sensible prosecuting attorney, Lieutenant Jack Ross, and Greg Watanabe as both Captain Isaac Whitaker and the medical officer, Commander Walter Stone; Aaron Pae Klein as platoon mate Cpl. Jeffrey Owen Howard; Karole Foreman as the Judge — Captain Julia Alexander Randolph — with a clear grip on authority; Gabriel Bonilla in the role of Cpl. Hammaker and Isaac J. Cruz as Cpl. Dunn.
The play has some “strong language,” though I imagine audience members who’ve actually served in the military will find that warning quaint indeed. The real bomb the play drops is not the proverbial f-bomb, but the highly vexed question about “duty” and “honor.” What happens when the two are conflated, when young soldiers are trained to believe that the only honor is in following orders — even if those orders are immoral? The play raises this question profoundly. Colonel Jessep expresses one half of the argument in terms difficult to refute: in order to be safe, we must be prepared to grant our protectors, the military, certain prerogatives.
After all, they’re the ones putting their lives on the line to ensure our security. But this argument is based on an assumption that neither Jessep nor any other character ever questions the assumption that we are in fact constantly under threat of attack. In a different context, this would be called paranoia. But along with lust, greed, vengeance, vaulting ambition, overweening pride and yes, even love — it’s the stuff of which those memorable dreams we call drama are made.
LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS & MCCOY RIGBY ENTERTAINMENT PRESENTS, A FEW GOOD MEN, by Academy Award Winner Aaron Sorkin (“To Kill a Mockingbird”). Direction: Casey Stangl. Technical Direction: Kevin Clowes. Stage Management: John W. Calder III. Lighting Design: Karyn D. Lawrence. Sound Design: Cricket S. Myers. Scenic Design: John Iacovelli. Costume Design: Shon LeBlanc. Props: Kevin Williams. Fight Choreographer: Michael Polak. Wig/Hair/Makeup: Kaitlyn Yagen/Madison Medrano. Casting: Julia Flores. Publicist: David Elzer/Demand PR.
WITH: Michael Ocampo, Brandon Engman, Matthew Bohrer, Doug Harris, Leanne Antonio, Greg Watanabe, Corey Jones, Rodrigo Varandas, Andy Umberger, Patrick Stafford, Sara King, Aaron Pae Klein, Karole Foreman, Gabriel Bonilla, Isaac J. Cruz, James Ripple, Kodi Jackman, Noah Collins, Dylan Wittrock.
“A Few Good Men” runs October 28th through November 20th with performances on Thursdays at 7:30PM, Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 1:30PM and 6:30PM at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd in La Mirada. Tickets range from $19-85, and can be purchased at www.lamiradatheatre.com or by calling (562) 944-9801.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Jason Niedle