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Since rehearsals began for the latest Broadway revival of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” Herman Wouk’s spick-and-span World War II courtroom drama, a half dozen retired generals have publicly questioned the wartime decisions of Donald Rumsfeld, spawning wide-ranging debates over military insubordination. Meanwhile, the most talked-about film currently in theatres, “United 93,” hinges on a chain of command being followed amid mass confusion, as military ground forces debate whether to take suspect airplanes out of the sky on September 11, 2001.
So “Court-Martial,”Wouk’s psychological dissection of discord within the ranks, is as topical and fresh as ever, right? Well…
Despite a crisp production by Jerry Zaks, the 1954 Navy drama (a distillation of Mr. Wouk’s book and subsequent film, each titled “The Caine Mutiny”) takes in its share of water as it chugs along, introducing and then dismantling each seemingly damning bit of testimony at regular intervals. Unlike “Twelve Angry Men” and “Judgment at Nuremberg,” two other Greatest Generation-era courtroom dramas to resurface on Broadway recently, this mounting never sheds the layer of dust it has accumulated when it stabs at Freudian psychology.
However, it still offers a fleet of meaty supporting roles and one galvanizing centerpiece – the paranoid, fidgety, steel-ball-fiddling Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, who receives a frighteningly lean performance by Zeljko Ivanek.
The curtain rises on John Lee Beatty’s fairly generic set in February of 1945. A court-martial has been convened to determine whether Queeg’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Stephen Maryk (Joe Sikora, in an impressive Broadway debut), acted unlawfully in usurping Queeg’s authority on board the Caine during a typhoon. Maryk contends that the hated Queeg was not in his right mind at the time, an assertion that a battery of military psychiatrists have subsequently dismissed.
But Maryk’s appointed military lawyer, Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (David Schwimmer, whose fame from NBC’s “Friends” presumably made this revival possible), changes the playing field, paying virtually no attention to the typhoon or to Queeg’s condition at the time. Instead, he shifts the trial into an inquiry of the captain’s behavior on a dozen earlier incidents, ranging from his petty bullying to his cowardice during battle. Rather than prove that Queeg took leave of his senses during the typhoon, Greenwald hopes to show that Queeg never really had them in the first place.
This allows him to maneuver a revolving door of witnesses into offering damning – and seemingly inadmissible, as prosecuting attorney Lieutenant Commander John Challee (a capable Tim Daly) points out – evidence about Queeg’s personality. Greenwald deftly paints a scathing portrait that the proud Queeg then attempts to refute, with fateful results.
Mr. Zaks, whose flair with ensemble casts has been in evidence from “The House of Blue Leaves”to “Guys and Dolls,”knows how to keep that revolving door well oiled, moving a series of character actors on and off the stage for their 10 or 15 minutes of testimony. Also benefiting from Mr. Zaks’s precision is Terry Beaver, who, as the presiding Captain Blakely, has virtually nothing to do except maintain order, but endows the whole proceedings with an avuncular, old-boys-club intelligence. Mr. Zaks has found a number of choice details – a sudden bray of laughter from Blakely, a near-comatose stillness that overtakes Maryk during difficult testimony – to differentiate his characters.
A low level of anti-Semitism toward Greenwald pops up throughout the trial, but the more prevalent prejudice stems from class resentment. The figures held out for deepest ridicule are Lieutenant Thomas Keefer (Geoffrey Nauffts), the smug fiction writer who looks to parlay his war experiences into a best-seller, and the two psychiatrists who rule on Queeg’s mental state. Mr. Nauffts’s Keefer addresses the courtroom with a toxic self-satisfaction akin to Truman Capote preening his way through Kansas. (“Our work is the narration of human conduct.”) And some of Greenwald’s sharpest attacks in Act I come at the expense of the egghead shrinks: Brian Reddy is among the stronger supporting performers as the jovially condescending Dr. Lundeen, while Tom Nelis’s Dr. Bird is overly persnickety.
Mr. Ivanek, an underrated member of the ensemble cast of last year’s “The Pillowman,” visibly relishes the role that Humphrey Bogart made famous in the 1954 film. And he’s more physically suited to Mr. Wouk’s description – the shrinks make it clear that the diminutive Queeg suffers from a powerful Napoleonic complex. Mr. Ivanek uses his coiled physicality shrewdly – long before those telltale silver balls come out (Queeg uses them to mask a stress-induced tremor in his hand), the roiling tension creeps closer and closer to the surface. It finally bursts out in a disjointed, rambling, increasingly counterproductive monologue as Queeg seeks to clear his name.
And Mr. Schwimmer? Well, he probably won’t make you forget Henry Fonda or Jose Ferrer – his predecessors on Broadway and in the film, respectively – but he also won’t make you remember Julia Roberts, Sean Combs, or some of the other celebrities to land on Broadway with a thud in recent years. He’s partial to the brisk, staccato delivery familiar from old comedies like “The Philadelphia Story” and “The Front Page” (Mr. Zaks has directed revivals of both). When he gets the rare bit of comic business, he knows just how long to stretch it out, and Mr. Schwimmer deftly conveys confusion when laying the occasional trap for hostile witnesses.
He may not fare as well at illuminating the complicated motivations that fuel Greenwald’s decision to defend Maryk, a man he views with contempt. But these sequences, particularly a climactic soliloquy in which a drunken Greenwald castigates the patriotism of everyone else in the room while hailing the Queegs of the world for “standing guard on this fat, dumb, and happy country of ours,” are among the toughest for modern-day audiences to swallow. Not because the sentiments are divisive – it’s hard to get more unobjectionable than saluting the lifers of the military – but because Mr. Wouk is trying to have it both ways.
After all, he’s the one who just offered a scathing glimpse into the pathology of one such career officer. Drawing the audience into a state of delight over Queeg’s meltdown and then angrily coming to his defense after the fact bespeaks a damaging level of ambivalence on Mr. Wouk’s part. Placed where it is, the scene feels like an awkward apology – something along the lines of “some of my best friends are in the military.”
The public definition of patriotism has certainly changed since 1945 – it’s even changed since 1995 – but “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” still taps into some worthwhile questions despite its stodgy structure.”You go to war with the army you have,” Mr. Rumsfeld famously said. Mr. Wouk asks whether that’s good enough – and then, should you be inclined to answer that question in the negative, whether anyone has a better suggestion.
Open run (236 W. 45th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, 212-239-6200).