Even casual theatergoers are likely to recognize the story of Aaron Sorkin’s military courtroom drama, "A Few Good Men," which played on Broadway in 1989. Yet it’s likely to take a mention of Jack Nicholson’s famous "You can’t handle the truth" line from the hit 1992 movie for people to connect the title with the story.
And then the mention of Nicholson sparks another connection, which Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company artistic director, refers to as the Will Ferrell/"Elf" problem. Make that a Tom Cruise/Demi Moore/Jack Nicholson problem.
‘A Few Good Men’
Pioneer Theatre Company presents the military courtroom drama about two Marines charged with a murder of another Marine in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Aaron Sorkin play premiered on Broadway in 1989 and was made into a 1992 movie starring Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson.
When » Plays Friday, Jan. 24-Feb. 8; Monday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday matinees, 2 p.m.
Where » Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City
Tickets » $25-$44; $5 increase on day of show; K-12 student discounts for Monday and Tuesday shows; at 801-581-6961 or www.pioneertheatre.org
Note » Contains strong language.
When you produce a play that inspired a hit movie, the title conveys name recognition for theatergoers. Yet the actors’ performances then have to help the audience forget the movie characters and find recognition in the themes of the onstage story.
"With any of the good roles, they’re always going to have some famous representation of it," says Joe Tapper, who plays Daniel Kaffee, the somewhat arrogant, somewhat lazy lawyer haunted by his late father;Tom Cruise played the role in the movie. Tom Hulce, who originated the role on Broadway, casts a longer shadow for Tapper, who returns to PTC after playing George in last season’s production "Of Mice and Men."
It helps to have "film amnesia," says Kate Middleton, who plays Lt. Commander Joanne Galloway, the only female character in the play’s 18-member cast. "If I do my job, three minutes in, the audience will only see the play and the character that myself and my fellow actors have created," she says. "If they see Demi Moore, we are not doing our job."
Now would be a perfect time to take care of the other obvious issue facing the New York-based actor — that of sharing a name with the world’s most famous new mom and duchess. "In our business, with meeting new people every day, I have to admit that it’s a great ice breaker," she says. "It gives you the opportunity to be funny or clever, which can lighten the room."
It also sometimes gets you free Champagne occasionally at New York restaurants. "The funniest thing that has happened was when Vera Wang called my manager and asked if they had the right address to drop off 10 wedding dresses," Middleton says.
But back to Sorkin’s play, which Azenberg considers a contemporary classic for its prescient issues exploring honor-code loyalty — particularly relevant in Utah, with its large population of military families, as well as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members regularly proclaim loyalty to a religious institution.
Beyond its ideas about challenging institutional loyalty, Sorkin’s script is marked by the rapid-fire speeches and dialogue-driven characters that have become distinctive to viewers of the writer’s TV shows, including "The Newsroom," "The West Wing" and "Sports Night," and movies such as "The Social Network" and "Moneyball."
"Even reading the play, you start to know these people within two scenes," says Azenberg, who is directing the production. "It’s not just smart, funny one-liners — it’s all characters. He does his research. His words are in the style of the way people who do those jobs talk."
During rehearsals, the Pioneer cast has done its research, working with enlisted service members to help actors aim for accuracy in military bearing and speeches.
For movie fans, the stage drama contains all the familiar speeches, even though the movie’s scenes take place in more wide-ranging locations beyond the courtroom. "All the great lines from the movie are absolutely in there, and you will hear them," she promises theatergoers.
One difference, though, is in the casting of the Col. Nathan R. Jessup, the character Nicholson played. In the stage drama, the character is closer in age to the characters of Kaffee and Galloway. There’s a different kind of tension created — "the stakes change slightly," is how Azenberg describes it — when the military officer is closer in age to the lawyers challenging him.
"At the beginning, Kaffee is content with his Harvard law degree and being in the Navy like his dad, doing just enough to get through," Tapper says of his character. "The play is about stepping up to the plate. I think that’s a worthy pursuit that interests me."
Middleton has enjoyed developing the balance between the by-the-books rigidity the character displays at the beginning of the story, in contrast with the humor and humanity she develops as the courtroom battle unfolds.
One of Galloway’s significant moments comes when she asks: "Since when do lawyers get to decide what’s morally reprehensible?" The line of dialogue captures the script’s exploration of right and wrong, and how questions of ethics and morality factor in. "The parts may not fit neatly into a box," Middleton says. "And what is beautiful about this play is that Sorkin lets each audience member decide for themselves."
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