LONDON — THERE is a cardinal rule for dramatists: If you're going to deliver a social message, do it within a cracking good story. Otherwise, the entire enterprise is likely to sink under the weight of its own self-importance. American playwright Donald Freed (``Secret Honor'') has ignored this rule with ``Veterans' Day,'' currently receiving its world premi`ere at the West End's most prestigious showcase, the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Hopes for the play had been riding high, and they were not ill-placed. Mr. Freed has already been given two prizes in the United States for ``Veterans' Day,'' including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for distinguished writing.
And the play boasts Jack Lemmon in the lead, marking the first return of the American star to the London stage since his multi-award-winning triumph here a few years ago in ``Long Day's Journey Into Night.'' That success was soon repeated on Broadway.
Mr. Lemmon's co-star is Britain's formidable Michael Gambon (``The Singing Detective''), one of his country's most acclaimed stage actors. Director Kevin Billington was a smart choice, as well, given his considerable expertise in British theater and film.
Yet London critics have roundly panned the play.
``Veterans' Day,'' a black comedy invoking antiwar sentiment and involving a plot to assassinate the President of the United States, is set in a V.A. hospital in Los Angeles. The time is the present. John Butts (Lemmon), a World War II army sergeant, waits in the reception room, fidgeting endlessly in the inimitable Lemmon fashion. The occasion is a Veterans Day ceremony, during which he will receive an honor from no less than the President.
Butts is an overbearingly cheerful used-car salesman, full of jolly memories and tunes from his war days - and little else. He saw no action as a soldier, serving instead as an entertainment organizer. His most prized possession is a letter of commendation from Bob Hope. He's managed over the years to amass a small fortune, $1 million of which he has recently donated to the hospital.
Over in the corner of the room is Private Holloway, little more than a shell of a human being, sitting silently in his wheelchair with eyes closed, much as he has done since 1917, after being injured in battle. They are soon joined by the enigmatic, supercilious Col. Walter Kercelik (Gambon), the most decorated serviceman of the Vietnam war and now instructor of military history at West Point. Three men from three American wars.
It becomes clear that Colonel Kercelik is not exactly playing with a full deck. He portentously lists a semi-incoherent catalog of the atrocities of war, the evils of the various United States security and military intelligence agencies, and so on. He also recounts a tale of how he shot four of his own men.
Playwright Freed, through the mouthpiece of this demented colonel, then goes on to conclude that peacetime is as destructive as wartime, but the methods are more insidious. Ultimately, so the play's logic follows, the President is to blame.
``Veterans' Day'' is supposed to be a black comedy. The problem is that it isn't funny. There are occasional touches of whimsy, however, through the indefatigable efforts of Lemmon, who frequently bursts into song - particularly in the beginning - playing jazzy snatches of wartime tunes on a nearby piano. Indeed, it's a pleasure to learn that Lemmon is such a spunky singer, as well as talented pianist. These brief musical interludes are by far the best moments in the show.
Gambon, too, gives it his all, barking his menacing meanderings and successfully creating, within the limitations of the script, an imposing presence, in good contrast to Lemmon. The only slight weakness in the acting comes when Lemmon has to shift into a more serious gear. Butts gradually accepts the fact that war isn't really about happy times, ticker-tape parades, and getting your picture on the cover of Life magazine. As a consequence, his pain isn't totally convincing; somehow the finesse Lemmon displays in Butts's lighter moments doesn't quite carry over.
The fault ultimately, however, lies with what dramatist Freed has written. ``Veterans' Day'' is a one-note rant: War and the US military/intelligence apparatus are bad. So what else is new? Such a one-dimensional polemic is too transparent and pointed to be sufficiently entertaining. Even more egregious, the play is far too simplistic to provoke any serious thought.