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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kate Middleton (left) and Joe Tapper (right), in the Pioneer Theatre Company's production of the courtroom drama "A Few Good Men," Monday, January 13, 2014.
Review: PTC's ‘A Few Good Men’ handles truth of Aaron Sorkin’s drama
Review » Acting chemistry elevates PTC’s military courtroom drama.
First Published Jan 27 2014 03:38 pm • Last Updated Jan 29 2014 12:12 pm

In Pioneer Theatre Company’s "A Few Good Men," actor Joe Tapper has the difficult task of making us care about a cocky young Navy lawyer in a stage play that’s ringing with cynical asides, Marine sound-offs and "Law and Order"-style gavel taps.

Tapper’s character, junior-grade Navy lieutenant and Harvard law grad Daniel Kaffee, is mostly known for his penchant for plea bargains, just getting by, and his attention to bad military softball. That’s before he runs into the razor-sharp conscience of Kate Middleton’s JoAnne Galloway, a personnel-file-toting, by-the-book lawyer from the military’s office of the Judge Advocate General.

At a glance

Pioneer Theatre Company’s ‘A Few Good Men’

The Aaron Sorkin military courtroom drama tells the story of two Marines charged with a murder of another Marine in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The play premiered on Broadway in 1989 and was made into a 1992 movie starring Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson.

When » Plays through 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.

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It’s the chemistry between Tapper and Middleton that makes us care. The two eventually team up to defend Lance Cpl. Harold Dawson (Corey Allen) and Pvt. Louden Downey (Ausin Archer), two Marines serving in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who are charged with a hazing-gone-wrong that murdered a member of their unit, William T. Santiago (Jason Cruz). Acting on little evidence, Galloway, the annoying lady lawyer, suspects the pair were ordered to teach Santiago a lesson — perform a "code red" — because he was a weak Marine whose request to be transferred had embarrassed the unit.

Aaron Sorkin’s early script shows all the markings of the TV and movie writer we have come to know over the past 20 years, and this story is packed with the idealistic dialogue of "The West Wing" and the cynical behavior of "The Social Network." Sorkin shows his lack of interest in female characters as well, writing just one woman into the 18-member cast, even as he gives her an influential role as the play’s conscience.

The first act’s mostly expositional scenes are fussy about revealing the script’s thematic bones, setting up the contrast between the Marine code of "unit, corps, God, country" and the personal integrity required to defy unjust orders. In the end, we theatergoers never really care much about the legal fate of Dawson and Downey.

But that’s a result of Sorkin’s choices, not PTC’s production, which showcases a rock-solid ensemble of actors who reveal their collective strength in the second act. That’s when the military courtroom drama has the audience on the edge of our seats, thanks to the disciplined pacing of artistic director Karen Azenberg, the precision of Paul Miller’s lighting design and James Noone’s inspired chain-link-influenced set.

Tapper and Middleton are crisp in their scenes together, Tapper landing his sarcastic lines pitch perfectly, while Middleton appears as tightly wound as her character’s bobby-pinned bun. Together they are so skilled at exploiting their characters’ contrasts they make our memories of Tom Cruise and Demi Moore’s performances in the 1992 hit movie fade away. And that’s despite the physical resemblance the clean-shaven Tapper shares with Cruise — PTC audiences will remember the actor from his turn as George in last season’s "Of Mice and Men" — via his character’s arrogant tossed-off smiles and the way he rakes his hand through his close-cropped hair.

With the rest of the cast, they make us care about the play’s heavy-handed explorations of the contrast between institutional loyalty and personal integrity.

Speaking of PTC returnees, longtime Utah audiences will appreciate Max Robinson’s turn as Capt. Matthew Markinson, the base’s second-in-command, who captures attention in a small, dramatic role as another military voice of conscience.

Which brings us to Torsten Hillhouse’s performance as base commander Lt. Col. Nathan Jessup, who delivers Jack Nicholson’s famous "You can’t handle the truth" speech. Hillhouse’s height and bully delivery give the character his own weightiness, which serves as just another payoff in this powerhouse production.


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ellenf@sltrib.com

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