Unlike film, which can viscerally lure you into the savagery of war, the stage must work harder to alert your senses to the battlefield. It's being done to startling, unnerving effect in David Grindley's masterly, unflinchingly brutal revival of R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End.
Written in 1928, mounted on Broadway in 1929, and last seen there a decade later -- as Hitler's army invaded Poland -- Journey's End is based on Sherriff's experiences in World War I. The one-time insurance agent witnessed firsthand the horrors of the "war to end all wars," from gassing to vermin to the cruelly stalemated armies of the Allies and Germany. Still, Sherriff's play is no more anti-war propaganda than a military field manual. It subverts: You spend nearly three hours in a trench with a band of British officers awaiting a massive offensive by the Germans, unseen in their own trench just yards away. As they wait, you can almost inhale their spirits (and whiskey) as you see the full toll that war takes, especially on young Captain Stanhope (Hugh Dancy). You sense how time's passage slows to a crawl amid falling shells and the ever-present stench of death.
Grindley's brilliant production assaults the senses. You hear bombs, literally feeling them screaming toward you (the sound design is by Gregory Clarke). You squint to read the faces in the dimly lit (by Jason Taylor) trench on an oppressively low-slung set (by Jonathan Fensom, who also designed the costumes) that makes you crouch in your seat. When a raid on the German frontline yields a soldier (Kieran Campion), the smoke used by the British soldiers wafts into the Belasco with the menace of mustard gas. When the British officers interrogate the soldier, you can't see the terror in his German eyes -- you hear it in his whimpering.
The play begins as Raleigh (Stark Sands), a young officer, arrives. At school, Stanhope was his mentor, and Raleigh's thrilled to reunite with him. But the scourge of war has turned Stanhope, a natural leader, into an emotionally damaged drunkard, a toxic confection originally played on the London stage by Laurence Olivier and here made harrowing and haunting by Dancy. Lieutenant Osborne (Boyd Gaines), Stanhope's second in command, is older than the others in this claustrophobic, rat-ridden bunker, and his calm earns him the nickname "Uncle." Along with Dancy's, Gaines' performance is shocking in its total absorption into character: It's as if both men were swallowed up by the depravity and deprivations of war, with one coming out stronger, the other devastated.
Indeed, all the actors leave indelible marks, including John Ahlin as Trotter, the up-from-the-ranks bloke whose large appetites never outweigh his dedication to duty, and Justin Blanchard as Hibbert, who may be feigning neuralgia to secure release from military service, supposedly based on Sherriff's own story. Some may wonder why Jefferson Mays, as company cook Mason, accepted such a seemingly minor role, endlessly skittering in and out of the invisible kitchen delivering meals absurdly concocted out of mealy rations. But aside from the stunning turns of Dancy, Sands, and Gaines, Mays is the man to watch: Rarely has an actor unearthed so much meaning from stage business.
Presented by Boyett Ostar Productions, Stephanie P. McClelland, Bill Rollnick, James D'Orta, and Philip Geier
at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., NYC.
Opened Feb. 22 for an open run. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
(212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 or www.telecharge.com.
Casting by Jay Binder and Jack Bowdan.