Washington war talk tends to center on how it's going and what it's for, but in the remarkable one-man show "Beyond Glory," actor-director Stephen Lang sets all that aside. During his seven sharply etched portrayals of Medal of Honor recipients, Lang conveys with vivid power what war is like.
"I don't go in for flag-waving," says Lang, who has adapted Larry Smith's book of interviews into an 80-minute piece now playing (it's been extended through Memorial Day) at an unusual but ideal site: the Women in Military Service Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. The material is based on firsthand accounts of the actions that earned the medals, and Lang keeps his focus directly on the soldiers. The show stays neutral.
Yet because there's a war on, "Beyond Glory" is jarringly current, and the unpredictable flow of events influences the performance. It's impossible not to think of Abu Ghraib, for instance, during a passage on Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who received the Medal of Honor for service in Italy in 1945. (The battle scene of Inouye losing his right arm feels graphic, even though it's played without bloody effects.) In the show, Inouye's father tells him, "Whatever you do, do not dishonor your country."
Lang says: "That had tremendous meaning for me all along; that's why it's in there. And now it just sort of sits there nakedly. You can feel a certain consideration going on -- why didn't someone say that to some other people? Or did people forget that? Do we not feel that way anymore?"
The resonance is as acute during Lang's blunt rendering of James Stockdale, best known as Ross Perot's 1992 running mate (he left an impression of uncertainty that's sternly contradicted by the show's profile of his seven years as a Vietnam POW). Stockdale's recollection of torture tactics is harrowing, aided by Lang's physical suggestion of how "the ropes" (a preferred method) wrenched the body.
"I don't need to make a meal of it," Lang says, "but it's Stockdale who says, 'Now understand, because the United States never declared war on North Vietnam, the communists refused to honor the Geneva guidelines regarding prisoners of war.' It's just there; make of it what you will."
"Beyond Glory" was nurtured at the Actors Studio in New York and will likely end up back in Manhattan, but the current premiere is being presented by Tribute Productions. Tribute is run by the Sprenger-Lang Foundation, a project of Washington lawyers Paul Sprenger and his wife, Jane Lang -- Stephen's older sister.
Lang, a robust-looking 51, sits in his sister's Cleveland Park home -- he lives with his wife of 23 years in Westchester County, N.Y., but is keeping an apartment in Washington for now -- and reflects on a long, rangy career in which, he notes, he's rarely gotten the girl. Shortly after graduating from Swarthmore College, he landed minor Shakespearean roles at the Folger in Washington and then for Joe Papp in New York. He acted steadily in regional theaters until his big break in 1984, when he read for the part of Happy in a Broadway production of "Death of a Salesman" that was to star Dustin Hoffman. Lang captures producer Robert Whitehead's clipped, nasal voice as he recalls Whitehead's enthusiastic reaction: "That's just terrific, that's very, very good!" He also nails Hoffman's low drone: "Kid, you don't have a thing to worry about."
"But the whole thing," says Lang, sitting up straight, beginning to relish the telling, "was I was looking at Arthur [Miller], who, you know, is about 71/2 feet tall. And he's standing there with this wonderful expression on his face, rocking back and forth on his heels, and he says, 'Gee! What a great scene!' When he did that, I thought, 'I've got a good shot at this thing.' "
A flurry of film and TV work followed. Lang starred in Michael Mann's "Crime Story" on TV and "Manhunter" on film, played a Vietnam vet straightening out rough teenagers in "Band of the Hand," delivered a ferocious turn as a union leader/closet case in the extraordinarily gritty "Last Exit to Brooklyn," came back to the stage with a splash in "The Speed of Darkness" and "A Few Good Men," in which he originated the role of Col. Jessep ("You can't handle the truth!"). Lang says he understands why he didn't get the part of Jessep in the film -- Jack Nicholson was cast -- but he was put out that director Rob Reiner wouldn't even see him for it.
"I felt they owed me a meeting," he says, "even if it was just a courtesy." He's never seen the movie "basically because of that."
It was around this time that Frank Rich in the New York Times called Lang "a fascinating actor who specializes in psychos," thanks to roles like Jessep and the serial killer he played in "The Hard Way" with James Woods and Michael J. Fox. Lang says with humor and regret that the "psychopathic period" of his career culminated with his "very bitter, lonely, anti-romantic Hamlet" for the Roundabout Theatre Company in the 1991-92 season. It was poorly received.
But indirectly, that "Hamlet" led to a significant pairing with film director Ron Maxwell. Maxwell was in pre-production for the 1993 film "Gettysburg," and he says that when he met Lang backstage after a performance, Lang shook his hand and said, "Hello, my name is George Pickett." Lang did indeed play Gen. Pickett in the movie, and a decade later got the central role of Stonewall Jackson in last year's epic "Gods and Generals," a role Maxwell had been pitching to Russell Crowe.
When Crowe finally bowed out, "Gods and Generals" was practically ready to shoot.
Maxwell says: "There was no time to play games. I needed an actor who could really do the job, who could carry the picture." Though the nearly four-hour movie did sluggish business and took plenty of hits in the press, Lang's fierce but surprisingly charming turn as Jackson was widely praised.
Lang has spent most of the last 10 years in movies and TV, and in that time the psychos have been crowded out by cops and frontline war heroes. "He has an interest in playing men who are involved in doing things for the greater good," says Jim Simpson, artistic director of the Flea Theater in New York (which recently featured the hit political satire "Mrs. Farnsworth," starring John Lithgow and Simpson's wife, Sigourney Weaver).
Simpson directed Lang for a stint in "The Guys," the long-running two-hander about a journalist helping a fire chief memorialize fallen comrades in the wake of 9/11; Lang did the Sept. 11, 2002, performance at Lincoln Center with Weaver. When Simpson saw a workshop of "Beyond Glory" last fall, he offered the Flea to Lang on the spot.
"That's not something you do every day," Simpson says. Lang felt he wasn't quite ready.
Regarding his tough-guy body of work, Lang says, "It's not part of a plan." (A facet you'd never guess from his resume: He's been a Gilbert and Sullivan buff since childhood.) "When I make a list of the stuff I respond to so deeply, it would always include 'The Bridge on the River Kwai,' 'Tunes of Glory,' 'Paths of Glory,' and it would certainly include 'Patton,' which I regard as maybe the single greatest performance I've ever seen."
The war roles can be hazardous duty, though, attracting a fringe element that Lang has twice had to fend off in public. At a recent performance of "Beyond Glory," a man moved to the front of the stage, snapped Lang's picture, retreated to the back of the house, then bellowed, "How many kills?"
"I just went off on him," Lang reports. "I said that was intolerable to me, and I delivered a stinging and very direct lecture about what I'm trying to do up here and how he has no part in that and I'm not interested in having some kind of a frigging therapy session with him right now, we're not sharing or anything like that. And that was that."
It was worse during "The Speed of Darkness" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. "Guy came onstage, and that was pretty heavy duty," Lang recalls. "I'm there with Bill Raymond, a wonderful actor, and I'm doing this speech to him about when I tried to scratch my name into the Vietnam wall with a can opener, and I hear this voice from the back of the house go, 'I saw it on Geraldo!' "
Lang renders the heckler's voice with a monstrous bellow, an eerily crazed grunt.
"Anyway, I go on with the speech, and then, like it's his line, he goes, 'I hope I don't have to come up there!' And in a split second I learned that everything I thought I knew about acting is complete [expletive]: There is no truth onstage, because what I am seeing in Bill Raymond's eyes is absolute truth, and it has nothing to do with me, it has to do with something that's happening over there. So I look, and there is Central Casting's Deranged Vietnam Vet, big sucker, big, plaid shirt with a hunter's vest on. I walked to him twice as fast as he was walking to me, I put my hands on his shoulders, and I said, 'No! No! No! Don't say a word! I am doing something here, and this is my place, not yours! You're going to get off -- don't say a word! If you want to talk to me, I'll talk to you after the show, but right now you're leaving the stage -- do you understand!' "
Lang laughs. "Ralph Richardson used to call the audience a pit of tigers," he says. Switching gears, he perfectly mimics Richardson's sonorous tone and clipped British accent: "A pit of tigahs that has to be tamed."
More typically he is sought out by people like the three Marines who stopped backstage after a recent performance of "Beyond Glory" and talked with Lang for a half-hour about Iwo Jima. For now, this is Lang's target audience.
"My immediate wish is to do it for our people, our troops, if it's possible," he says.
"I'd like to take it to some of the spots where people could use a little inspiration, or just some laughs, relief, you know?"
Lang's stance on the current war has shifted, and although he'll share his political views, he makes it clear that his agenda is the show, and the show is "not Democratic and not Republican; it's American."
"I don't mind being on an enemies list if those things are going to be there," he says, "but you can do so much more good in some places as a conciliator. I don't think I'm a namby-pamby person or I lack a point of view, but I am interested in talking to anybody at this juncture. You gotta do it."