Say this for Aaron Sorkin's A Few Good Men: Since its 1989 Broadway debut, there haven't been moments when it hasn't been relevant. The play – and the 1992 film with Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise – questions how far we're willing to go to ensure our security. It was written as a response to an incident very similar to the one depicted in the play itself, about an illegal Marine Corps hazing ritual gone wrong. But revisiting it in the early Aughties contrasted with the heinous abuses of power American soldiers committed in our name at Guantánamo Bay; now, as Americans debate whether they're comfortable rising and sleeping under a blanket of freedom provided for them by intelligence agencies that collect their intended-to-be-private communication, it's worth revisiting whether or not we're all Colonel Jesseps or Private Santiagos.
The Georgetown Palace Theater production opens with a dozen Marines, led by a marching drill sergeant (Jim Mutzabaugh, in his 41st production at the Palace), running through a cadence call. Lance Corporal Dawson (Ethan Heeter) and Private Downey (William Swift) explain that they've been accused of killing Private William T. Santiago (Cameron McKnight) as part of a "code red," or intra-unit hazing. The two Marines serve at Guantánamo Bay under the command of Colonel Jessep (Rick Smith), a decorated leader in line for a promotion. Meanwhile stateside, Naval JAG lawyer Lieutenant Commander Galloway (Kristin S. Harper) lobbies the two Marines' lazy attorney, Lieutenant Kaffee (Ismael Soto III) to investigate exactly what happened the night that Santiago died – and who ordered the code red that claimed his life.
The plot elements – the "Did you order the code red?" and "I want the truth/you can't handle the truth!" that the play hinges upon – are ingrained in the cultural consciousness now. Audiences don't have to know the script to read Jessep's guilt from the moment we encounter him, and Smith plays with that expectation. His Jessep is defined by hubris and self-righteousness, and we can see early on that they'll lead to his downfall. (It's also a reminder for Newsroom viewers that there was a time in Sorkin's work when it was the villains who delivered condescending monologues about how they were smarter than everyone else.)
Not every aspect of the Palace's production is as effective. It's to be expected that the courtroom climax would play a bit like Cruise/Nicholson karaoke, but when the play attempts to distinguish itself from the famous film, it often bogs it down: Whenever there's a set change, it's performed by Marines and accompanied by a cadence call. In the first act, this makes for a visceral reminder of the culture of the Corps; by the second, it just robs the piece of forward momentum.
Nonetheless, A Few Good Men remains a brilliant – and relevant – script, one of a handful of contemporary pieces to claim a place in the canon. It's always valuable to recognize just how timely it remains, and that's more effective in a live performance than in re-watching a two-decades-old film on Netflix. The Georgetown Palace production recalls that power of theatre, at the very least.
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