The Kennedy Center’s six-month festival of arts from the 1940s includes a most satisfying production of Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan’s “Mr. Roberts,” which has docked at the Eisenhower Theater for a three-week stay. What the wartime comedy lacks in star power, it supplies in earnest performances from the ship’s able-bodied crew.
The lone dramatic contribution to a retrospective heavy on music and dance, “Mr. Roberts” is an appropriate choice with its homespun virtues, rich characters and ageless themes of hope and perseverance, now playing to new auds unfamiliar with either the play or the 1955 John Ford/Mervyn LeRoy film in which Henry Fonda re-created his stage role.
One is transported to that simpler time the instant the curtain rises on Andrew Jackness’ colossal ship set, dominated by a high tower and swinging crane.
Director Robert Longbottom has stayed true to the straightforward tale of monotonous duty aboard the cargo ship, where tedium is broken by the occasional fistfight, the daily ogling of bathing nurses through binoculars and the constant sparring matches between Mr. Roberts and the tyrannical captain.
Longbottom has cast in the title role actor Michael Dempsey, a handsome performer who is sturdy but unspectacular as the conscientious officer preoccupied with doing right by his men and winning a transfer to the war zone. Granted, Dempsey is competing with a legend here in Fonda. But on opening night, he had not yet settled into a demanding role that calls for leadership, congeniality and stubbornness.
One chronic problem is that the character is upstaged at every turn by Ensign Pulver, the timid, duty-avoiding practical jokester who carries most of the comic load (an Oscar-winning Jack Lemmon in the film). That is certainly the case here. Hunter Foster is truly hysterical in the part, stealing the show with impeccable timing and lighting up the stage with his presence. His perf lifts the entire play.
Other capable principals are Stephen Kunken as the ship’s sympathetic doctor and Frank Deal as the captain, a Cagney wannabe. They are supported by a large cast of sailors who collectively provide a heaping dose of personality to the bittersweet tale. Ken Billington’s lighting showcases the many moods aboard ship and the ever-changing Pacific sky.