Journey's End, Seanachai Theatre Company, at Breadline Theatre. Settling in before Elizabeth Schuch's lyrically dreary underground bunker, its ossified crud nestled beneath massive blackened planks that seem to groan under tons of earth, one fact is immediately apparent: few plays could live up to this magnificent set. R.C. Sherriff's unwaveringly adequate World War I drama isn't one of them.
The play was a sensation when it premiered in London in 1928 with a young Laurence Olivier as Raleigh, the idealistic 18-year-old lieutenant who's pulled strings to land in the company led by his high school hero, Stanhope. Taking a languid, slice-of-life approach, Sherriff showed ordinary soldiers stumbling through a nonsensical conflict with nothing more important to defend than a well-made pot of tea. Seventy-five years later, however, Sherriff's humanism is compromised by what seem cliches: an overly convenient assemblage of army types mark time in familiar territory for three long acts. And the play's central question--will the alcoholic Stanhope survive Raleigh's critical gaze?--seems positively quaint.
Director David Cromer has a hard time getting things moving; even though he's cut the entire opening scene, the barely lit first act crawls. After that the action heats up, and ultimately reaches a genuinely engrossing climax. Although the cast struggle to convey the gravity of the conflict supposedly raging just offstage, they bring much of the play to life by creating meaningful, truthful relationships.