After I took my seat -- and an excellent seat it was, for a change! -- for Journey's End, I tried to recall everything I knew about World War I, in preparation for what I was about to see. And I realized to my dismay that my knowledge of that period amounts to very little indeed. I know about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and I was able to come up with the Treaty of Versailles, but I'm very fuzzy on what happened in between. Of course, by the time I was studying history in high school, we were learning about the first World War primarily as a preface to/contributing factor to/failure to prevent the second. One of the great strengths of R.C. Sherriff's play Journey's End is that it was written in 1928, when WWI was still The Great War, the War to End All Wars. (Coincidentally, I believe it was around that same time that the Belasco, where Journey's End is currently playing on Broadway, was last renovated.) So the play doesn't depend on historical irony for its impact, and it all feels surprisingly immediate. War is war, it seems.
If, like me, you find yourself struggling to come up with solid facts about the Great War, you will be glad to know that very little historical background is necessary to appreciate Journey's End. The play is a sort of Red Badge of Courage of WWI; the war is its backdrop, but the experience of individual men is its true subject. That's not to say that Sherriff's script is light on period detail, and it is a credit to the actors and director (David Grindley) that I was able to take these characters seriously in spite of their tendency to say things like "right-o!" and "frightfully" and "ra-ther." I kept expecting somebody to burst into the dugout (where the entire play takes place) and shout, "Bunch of monkeys on the ceiling, sir! Grab your egg and fours and let's get the bacon delivered!" ("Sorry, old man, we don't understand your banter.") But the quality of the performances was such that the actors were able to get away with using "topping" as an adjective (as in, "I say, isn't she a simply topping girl?") with nary a titter from the audience.
Sherriff's script is not quite as subtle as it might be -- he leans especially heavily on one character's alcoholism, as though we might forget it if he didn't mention it constantly. But overall it's very solid. The play is long, and the first half is relatively unspectacular, but a little patience will pay off in the second half, I promise. Journey's End is a true evening (or, in my case, afternoon) in the theatre, of the sort they just don't write anymore.
The actors are all very good, but Boyd Gaines is by far the best. I'm used to thinking of him as a song-and-dance man, and not a soldier type, but he is completely convincing as Lt. Osborne, right down to the droopy mustache, and he boasts the best nonnative British accent onstage. His performance, quiet, confident and never showy, holds all the others together, just as his character stabilizes the company of soldiers in the play. Hugh Dancy seems as comfortable onstage as he is onscreen, and he certainly doesn't rest on his pretty-boy laurels; his performance is committed and intense, although his characterization could use a bit more depth. He plays the aforementioned alcoholic, Captain Stanhope, in a near-constant state of hysteria, and the play would benefit if there were a few lows to go with the character's emotional highs. Stark Sands is adorable, and ultimately very affecting, as the callow Lt. Raleigh; his performance comes closest to tipping over into parody, but I realized at intermission that my impression may have been influenced by the memory of his performance in Die, Mommie, Die! As for Jefferson Mays, his role is hardly as central as his above-the-title billing would suggest -- in fact, I think he's bringing more nuance to the character than the script intends -- but he's quite good, and quite funny.
If the play had ended a scene earlier than it did, I'd have said, good play, good performances, a bit long... but I was taken completely by surprise by the final scene -- in fact, the final image -- which was so exceptionally powerful and so deeply moving that I can't find words to explain it without giving it away. And I am loath to do that, because I want you to see it for yourself. There is a kind of catharsis that you can still only get in the theatre, and right now you can get it at Journey's End, thanks to a great cast and a truly excellent staging (I want to see Tony nominations for Boyd Gaines, director David Grindley and sound designer Gregory Clarke*, at the very least). I know you may be thinking, "Why -- aside from the prettiness of Hugh Dancy and Stark Sands -- would I want to see a long play about British soldiers during WWI?" And I'm telling you, just take my word for it. This is not to be missed. It's a simply topping play.
*ETA: I have just learned that there is no Tony Award for sound design. I say. Clarke did win the Drama Desk Award, though.