Well, I certainly didn't see this coming.
From out of nowhere, a British director named David Grindley has exhumed R.C. Sherriff's 1929 World War I drama "Journey's End" and turned it into a profoundly moving evocation of life during wartime, a poignant tribute to those who fight and wait and talk and wait and comfort and wait and wait and die.
As is so often the case, the soldiers' time in the British trenches somewhere near St.-Quentin, France, consists of about 10% terror and 90% tedium. "We are, generally, just waiting for something," the patient, diplomatic Lieutenant Osborne (a marvelous Boyd Gaines) explains to Raleigh (Stark Sands), a wide-eyed second lieutenant who has joined the company only minutes earlier. "When anything happens, it happens quickly. Then we just start waiting again."
It is this juxtaposition that Mr. Grindley conveys so well, presenting the restorative stretches of boredom alongside rare flashes of violence with equal conviction. (He met with similar success with a London revival of the play in 2004.) He begins each scene with a barrage of thunderous sound effects before shifting into the officers' dingy, crowded dugout, which is located on the supply line. Just in front of it sits the front line, which in turn is about 70 yards from the German trenches. "About the breadth of a Rugger field," explains the always helpful Osborne.
The play's first image is of an officer vainly trying to dry out his socks over a candle, and his dank, oppressive surroundings are as much of a character in "Journey's End" as the mud-caked officers who wearily inhabit them. Mr. Grindley leaves the upper twothirds of the Belasco Theatre stage unused until a devastating coup de theatre at the play's conclusion. Until then, Jonathan Fensom's claustrophobic set design, with its groaning timbers and muddy floor, and Jason Taylor's sepulchral lighting create an indelibly comfortless image. It's hard to shake the idea that these noble men are sitting prematurely in their own graves.
During their frequent stretches of down time, the soldiers play cards, gripe about the food to the chef (the overqualified Jefferson Mays, making the most of a minor role), and drink whiskey by the gallon. This last pastime is particularly crucial for the young commanding officer, Captain Stanhope (Hugh Dancy), who relies on a bottle a day to stay sane. He and Raleigh were pals before the war — Raleigh had pulled strings to be assigned to the company of his school-yard hero — and Stanhope is ashamed of the dissolution to which war has driven him. Mr. Dancy, assuming the role created by a 21-year-old Laurence Olivier, conveys Stanhope's hard-fought authority as well as his wrenching neuroses, and he is well matched by the soft-visaged Mr. Sands. Best of all in a very strong ensemble is Mr. Gaines, who suffuses the role of Osborne with a gentle, unforced decency.
The play is set in the 48 hours before a massive German offensive, and most of the soldiers shown are clearly doomed. (Some more clearly than others: Sherriff's characters fall firmly within the template of war-drama archetypes, and the individual deaths aren't likely to take many viewers by surprise.) As Gregory Clarke's sound design builds to almost unbearable levels by the finale, all is far from quiet on the western front.
Yet with the exception of a callous colonel (Richard Poe), "Journey's End" engages in little of the vitriol toward inept higher-ups common to subsequent World War I dramatizations like "Gallipoli" or "Paths of Glory." In fact, Sherriff's view of the war in which he fought – like Stanhope, he was gripped with fear but ultimately served in the trenches with valor — was diametrically opposed from that of his original producer, the pacifist Maurice Browne.
In today's polarized cultural climate, it's virtually unthinkable that two major forces behind a work of political art might not be on the same page ideologically; even more bizarre is the idea that the resulting work could plausibly confirm the beliefs of each side. Time has nudged public perception of works like "Journey's End" closer to Browne's camp, but the respect and devotion that Sherriff shows toward his soldiers carries not an ounce of indignation or condescension.
In the hours before the offensive is scheduled to begin, Sherriff depicts an excruciating wait before two central characters embark on what appears to be a suicide mission. For eight hushed minutes, staged with tremendous tension by Mr. Grindley, the two men say not a word defending or condemning the war. They share a smoke. They chatter to fill the time. Finally, one of them removes his wedding ring with some difficulty and puts it on the table. "I'm — I'm leaving it here," he says, trying to set the younger man at ease. "I don't want the risk of losing it." And then they're off, stepping out of their dark trench and into oblivion. Mr. Grindley's pitch-perfect production reclaims them, and hundreds of thousands of other soldiers like them, with precision and dignity.
Open run (111 W. 44th St., between Sixth and Seventh avenues, 212-239-6200).