NEW YORK -- The gripping effect of "Journey's End" is not merely akin to watching an old war movie. At times, it's like being in one.
That's how realistically the terrifying sounds of the front-line bombardments are re-created in the exceptional revival of R.C. Sherriff's World War I drama that opened last night at the Belasco Theatre. Set in a dank, candlelit officers' dugout in a British trench line in France, the play is a jarring slice of life on the precipice of violent death.
You can't help but commune with the predicament of the hunkered-down soldiers, as the noise of the incoming shells -- courtesy of skillful sound designer Gregory Clarke -- grows ever more disconcertingly immediate. In the trenches and the theater aisles, we are all meant to feel like sitting ducks.
Of course, it's not only the horrors of the War to End All Wars that this production intends to summon. The high-pitched shriek of the mortar fire also puts you in mind of improvised explosive devices and other macabre innovations of warfare in our own time -- and of a latter-day war that never seems to end.
As much as any battlefield calls forth images of waste as well as courage, "Journey's End" could be called antiwar. But the documentary skill of the playwright -- an insurance agent who served in the war with the 9th East Surrey Regiment -- suggests a work whose aim is for psychological rather than political impact. The realism of the play, first produced in the late 1920s, was a sensitive issue for London audiences still coming to grips with the Great War's devastating toll.
What holds up today is Sherriff's humane treatment of the various men in the trenches, from the young commanding officer (Hugh Dancy), who blunts his anguish with whiskey, to the older lieutenant Osborne (Boyd Gaines) who's careful to leave his wedding ring in a safe place after being chosen for a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. Gaines is wonderful in the role of the thoroughly decent schoolteacher-turned-soldier who accepts with touching composure the sacrifice he is required to make.
Indeed, all the actors have been well chosen by director David Grindley (who staged a version of this production in London). Jefferson Mays, who won a Tony playing a cross-dressing collaborator of the East German secret police in "I Am My Own Wife," delivers another finely embroidered performance here, as the private in charge of the officers' mess. Among the drama's strengths is how it suggests that although class distinctions count in the foxholes, they don't matter quite as much as rank.
Mays's Pvt. Mason, for instance, comes across as efficiently subordinate yet never servile, while the equally proletarian 2nd Lt. Trotter (a swell John Ahlin) is accepted without prejudice into the officers' privileged inner sanctum.
Although it's an ensemble piece examining a spectrum of responses to war, "Journey's End" takes as its most compelling band the arrival of a newly minted officer (Stark Sands), who was a few years behind Dancy's Capt. Stanhope at some hallowed English school. Sands's 2nd Lt. Raleigh is as guileless and eager as Stanhope is hardened and bitter. The comradeship dictates that Stanhope's authority be respected no matter how unstable he seems. His long duration on the front lines accords him the right to act out his paranoia and despair.
Sands, in a sense, allows us to gauge how the corrosive war has changed Stanhope. The desperate conditions, the omnipresent threat, the flawed decisions of the high command have all fueled Stanhope's deterioration, and Dancy flies off the handle grandly.
Sherriff tries, too, to portray what the long lulls in the fighting are like, and it's only in this wait for the inevitable, ugly turn of events that "Journey's End" begins to flirt with the predictable.
Still, Grindley takes this gritty subject head-on, in a way that makes every character sympathetic, even the cowardly officer feigning illness for a chance to go home, and the captured German soldier, whimpering in fear. Set designer Jonathan Fensom makes of the dugout a deeply satisfying underground maze that is confining in the great claustrophobic tradition of "Das Boot."
In light of the subtler sequences of "Journey's End," the kabooms! that rock the Belasco might be a bit too jarring for some. Then again, the cruelty of war can never thunder too loudly.