It might not be a war we lived through, and these three old codgers might not be people we'd choose to be friends with. But by the time this 90-minute gem is over, we'd walk the literal and figurative distance with them, any time, in any era. Gérald Sibleyras' play, translated by Tom Stoppard, is one for the ages.
Having in essence given their lives for their country, three veterans of World War I are spending their "golden" days on the rear terrace of a vet's home, presumably confined there but dreaming of being...elsewhere. The script's parallels to Waiting for Godot have been pointed out in outside resources repeatedly, but they are only fully appreciated while watching this production's delicate variations on Beckett's themes.
Thea Sharrock directs with tenderness and restraint and with such skill that watching three men who sit in the same chairs day after day becomes spellbinding. Robert Jones' set design — of a stone terrace in bloom, curtained by ramrod-straight poplars, under Paris' ever-changing sky — is transportive, lighted with attention to the Northern French atmosphere by Howard Harrison. Jonathan Burke's sound is tastefully subtle, even including its goose calls.
But this show glows in large part through its three actors. Len Cariou is the lame but still randy Henri; George Segal is the agoraphobic Gustave, who is also afflicted with wanderlust; and Richard Benjamin is Philippe, the brain-damaged "youngster" of the group. Segal's timing, his willingness to listen and process, highlight the work. Benjamin is an astonishing physical comedian, launching into faints and plying dexterous facial expressions. And Cariou's skills run wide and deep, topped by his resonant, flexible voice. The three work in classical, slightly heightened delivery.
As in Godot, these three vaguely know how it all will end but want the journey to continue — in friendship, in adventure, in reluctant mutual support that is sometimes dictated by a rope they tie around their waists and sometimes inherent in their shared history on battlefields past and present.
Presented by and at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A. Tue.-Thu. 7:30 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 4 & 8:30 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Apr. 18-May 27. (310) 208-5454. www.geffenplayhouse.com.