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A CurtainUp Review
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial
The hold that the play has on us comes from how the way the psychological twists and turns and the unexpected but revelatory truths that unravel and reverse themselves at the trial and afterwards are uncovered. It is so much more than we ever dared expect at the outset. Trials have a built-in drama. Almost by their nature, they impel us to listen and become a participant much like a member of the jury. But it is the author's carefully accelerating rhythm that catapults the necessary legalistic exposition quickly into a series of super-charged confrontations between the prosecution and the defense.
Wouk's moral, ethical and psychological issues that come to the fore may have dimmed slightly through the years, but they have not lost their ability to stir audiences even though in today's politically-charged times they are likely to feel alienated by the melodramatic moralizing that Wouk resorts to in the play's final scene.
Director Zaks has subpoenaed a generally solid cast. It is too bad his direction hasn't inspired more than just solidity. David Schwimmer, best known for his role in the hit TV comedy series Friends is no stranger to the stage, as a performer and as a co-founder of the Lookingglass Theater Company in Chicago. In this his Broadway debut he brings a thoughtful but not particularly exciting presence to the role of Lt. Barney Greenwald, the defense attorney unwillingly assigned to justify the mutinous act committed by Lt. Stephen Maryk (Joe Sikora) on the run-down minesweeper Caine.
The production owes a lot to the mesmerizing performance of Zeljko (pronounced Zelchko) Ivanek, as Lt. Com. Philip Francis Queeg, the neurotic and schizophrenic captain of the Caine. One almost forgets that anyone else is on the stage with him as he changes from calculated composure to the now famous bead fondling breakdown scene. Ivanek, whose Broadway roles have included unforgettable portrayals in The Pillowman, The Glass Menagerie, and Two Shakespearean Actors, provides Queeg with a formidable progression of increasingly rich and motivating details, not the least of which is the way he shrinks in the chair, crosses his legs -- it's almost as if he's attempting to get into the fetal position.
Perhaps the thing that makes the play so unexpectedly topical and scary is the psychiatric evaluation of Captain Queeg as given consecutively by Dr. Forrest Lundeen (Brian Reddy) and Dr. Bird (Tom Nelis) during their testimony. Both Reddy and Nelis could be accused of a little scenery chewing. However, there is an amusing arrogance behind Reddy's glibly delivered psycho-speak, during which he is maneuvered into labeling Queeg as "a paranoid personality." Also entertaining is Nelis as the haughty psychiatrist who almost goes paranoid himself in the process of affixing the label "obsessive personality with paranoid features" to his evaluation of Queeg.
But here is where the play resonates with an unexpected verity: Although it is Queeg's behavior and incompetence that are under scrutiny, the doctors' otherwise lucid analysis has a striking similarity to the evaluation of George W. Bush by Dr. Justin A. Frank, a Washington, D.C. psychoanalyst and Professor of Psychiatry at George Washington University Medical School. Anyone who reads his best-selling book Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President. will undoubtedly be astounded by the similarities between Frank's analysis of Bush and those expressed about Queeg in the play. (Editor's Note: To check out the book click here).
Tim Daly is fine as the smug Lt. Com. John Chelee, the judge's advocate, who unwittingly allows his anti-Semitism surface in anger. One would be hard-pressed to admonish any of the testifiers and officers, each of whom in their own way makes the drama tingle with tension. There is some very funny testimony given by Paul David Story, as the disoriented 20 year-old Signalman Third Class Junius Urban whose innocence borders on half-wittedness. Also contributing admirably are Geoffrey Nauffts, as the manipulating Lt. Thomas Keefer; Ben Fox, as the agitated Lt. (Junior Grade) Willis Seward Keith, who accuses Queeg of cowardice and has no qualm about calling him "a petty tyrant;" and Terry Beaver, as the presiding Captain Blakey.
The usual brilliance of a John Lee Beatty setting is unfortunately missing in action. Using split walls painted the greenish-gray of an old elephant, and only those desks, and chairs needed for the judge, military tribunal, opposing counsels and the witness stand, the furniture is poorly placed. With the witness stand dead center, it forces both Schwimmer and Daly to stand behind and speak to the backs of the heads of the testifiers and witnesses in order to be seen. Just as the set looks like something a high school would build in their workshop, Zaks' hasn't blocked the action credibly or with an eye for reality.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is back on the same stage on which it appeared in 1954, but it is not the same world. And our response to Wouk's admonition that civilians do not have the right to question the authority of the military is almost repellant.
Editor's Note: I witnessed the Caine trial on the same night as Simon and can only concur with his excellent appraisal about what's not quite right but still right enough about the play. I will therefore limit my "two cents " to a little add-on feature I've titled Wouk's Golden Egg Laying Goose
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