When he dramatized a part of the plot of his 1951 Pulitzer-winning novel, Herman Wouk had no way of knowing that a half-century later, “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” would seem so disconcertingly schizophrenic. Any drama about unfit leadership is bound to resonate in Bush’s America, especially with lines about the leader in question like, “You might say he revises reality in his own mind so that he comes out blameless.” But the play then turns self-righteous in a final scene that seems almost like an apologia for Donald Rumsfeld. Having won his case by discrediting the commander’s stability, the defense lawyer proceeds to condemn liberal intellectuals who criticize military chiefs without firsthand knowledge of war.
Last season’s taut revival of another period piece that confines an all-male ensemble to a courtroom or thereabouts, “Twelve Angry Men,” might have made resurrecting Wouk’s drama seem a good idea. Back on the same stage where it premiered in 1954, “Caine Mutiny” is still a well-made play with a share of suspense, but in Jerry Zaks’ efficient but uninspired production, it rarely crackles. In this uninterestingly designed staging at least, the Navy drama seems stilted, unable to harness its awkward relevance for renewed vigor.
Part of the problem is casting. Lt. Barney Greenwald, who reluctantly takes on the defense of Lt. Stephen Maryk in a San Francisco Naval District court on charges of mutiny, has been played by enough distinctly different types to suggest a part open to interpretation. Earnest everyman Henry Fonda originated the role on Broadway. Jose Ferrer gave it a shifty edge in Edward Dmytryk’s movie the same year. Eric Bogosian brought his coiled menace to Robert Altman’s 1988 television remake.
David Schwimmer diligently channels stiff-backed seriousness and conflicted integrity into Greenwald, but it’s a bland, unmodulated performance that saddles the play with an inert center. The actor also fails to evoke the period of a drama set in 1945.
The same goes for Joe Sikora as Maryk, the conscientious exec officer of the run-down minesweeper, the USS Caine; Geoffrey Nauffts as manipulative and cowardly budding novelist Lt. Thomas Keefer; and Tim Daly as the authoritative prosecutor, Lt. Com. John Challee. All four actors get the job done but are unable to bring texture to their characters in a production that’s all stiff surfaces.
Some much-needed color is introduced via two minor roles of Navy medical authorities who take the stand. Brian Reddy injects an entertaining shot of fruity pompousness into Dr. Forrest Lundeen, while Tom Nelis is amusingly thorny as the starchy Freudian, Dr. Bird. These actors at least appear to have done their homework and watched a few WWII movies.
But the play’s main attraction, of course, has always been Lt. Com. Philip Francis Queeg, a role indelibly associated with a then-fragile Humphrey Bogart in the 1954 film, three years before his death. Watching the battle-worn, clinically paranoid captain come unstrung during questioning provides a tense, emotionally fraught climax after dense testimony concerning the events that prompted Maryk to relieve Queeg of his command during a typhoon in the Pacific.
Cocky and self-assured when he first appears as a witness for the prosecution, Zeljko Ivanek’s Queeg seems to become steadily older and more frail when recalled by Greenwald, trembling visibly as the lawyer’s questioning wears him down and exposes the depths of his neuroses.
(The steel marbles that Queeg famously rolls around in one hand when he’s under pressure make only a brief appearance.)
It’s a fascinating perf, bristling first with arrogance and then with pain, desperation and humiliation. But while Ivanek’s meltdown is affecting, the actor’s work seems robbed of its deserved impact by the undynamic context.
It’s the principal strength of Wouk’s play that we root initially for the downfall of Queeg as an obsessive martinet but gradually are made to feel the tragic hollowness of a man stripped of his dignity. That humane sense of the fallibility and vulnerability of the military chain of command reverberates in Greenwald’s final speech, slamming the smug Keefer for his instrumental role in undermining a dedicated armed forces leader.
Jewish Greenwald’s deep respect for the WWII leaders that fought Hitler fuels his ire. But today’s global conflicts are not as black and white, and Iraq in particular is not Nazi Germany in any analysis. In 2006, the play’s conclusion has an uneasy, preachy tone. Is Wouk saying that their commitment to cause and country make even the most unreliable military chiefs untouchable?