Mental note for future touring shows: When a production's playbill says "New Casting in Major Roles," is it a boast—or a disclaimer? The question is appropriate after L.A. Theatre Works' version of THE CAINE MUTINY COURT-MARTIAL, which went down with all hands after simply imploding last Wednesday night during its final act.
The production comes on the heels of an ill-fated Broadway revival which starred Friends' David Schwimmer that opened—and closed—in May of this year. Given the country's long-simmering debate over the Iraq War, which culminated in a change of leadership in both houses of Congress and the dismissal of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week, the recently renewed interest in Herman Wouk's mid-century work is understandable.
After all, the 1951 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (and its subsequent adaptations into a Broadway play with Henry Fonda and a film starring Humphrey Bogart, both in 1954) attempts to assess the disastrous consequences of a vacuum in leadership and indecisiveness in command on soldiers in the field—or on the waves, in this instance.
The time is February 1945. World War II continues: Victory has not yet been secured in Europe; the nuclear age has not yet dawned. Naval lieutenant Stephen Maryk has been charged with mutiny after forcibly relieving Philip Queeg, his memorably named commanding officer, of duty at the height of a typhoon in the South Pacific. Maryk's sole defense is that Queeg was mentally unfit for command, and that instability threatened the lives of the crew.
Wouk's plot examines not only a soldier's duty to question orders in a time of war. It also raises society's obligation to do the same—assess the relevance of a leadership, the degree to which it remains in touch with reality, and change that leadership when it is found to be deleterious.
But repeatedly we are struck by the vulnerability of the mechanisms that guarantee and protect this nearly sacred charge. As we also see in Deep Dish Theater's production of The Exonerated, one man in a moment of weakness is all it takes to threaten the system of justice: a judge swayed by motives beside impartiality, a prosecutor who assigns a socially stigmatized lawyer for the defense, or an attorney tempted to attenuate that defense due to personal ambivalence or unpopular career prospects. Arguably all three are on stage. The scales of law tremble as a result.
Or at least they do for as long as the production itself isn't shaken by insufficient rehearsal. Under John Rubenstein's direction, John Vickery is riveting as a Queeg who ultimately indicts himself on the witness stand, and James Gleason supports admirably as the judge, Captain Blakely.
Bill Brochtrup displays nice range in the three disparate roles this radio/stage theater hybrid permits. Still, the relative lack of character development Wouk's stage version gives Maryk's cowardly provocateur, Lt. Thomas Keefer, will likely leave fans of the film unsatisfied. They also may chafe upon finding that the flashbacks that largely told the story in the film have been removed: The stage version leaves the courtroom only for an after-trial celebration when Keefer learns his novel is going to be published.
That's where the rehearsal clock clearly ran out on Grant Shaud, who replaced Eric Stoltz as conflicted defense attorney Barney Greenwald. Even with the radio theater convention of a script in his hand, Shaud was unable to hold his own through a fundamentally incoherent final act. As a result, the source of his character's conflict—a razor-sharp conscience that clearly saw both sides of Queeg's story—was all but totally obscured. It was an inexcusable close to what had been a worthy—and timely—play.
Thankfully, the verdict is far more favorable with Deep Dish Theater's production of THE EXONERATED, which closes this weekend in Chapel Hill. On Paul Stiller's tasteful talk-show set (which is almost subliminally punctuated by black iron prison bars), six innocent people convicted of capital crimes and slated for execution speak, simply and movingly, about their journeys to death row—and their difficulties coming back from there.
Playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen make Delbert Tibbs our poetic guide through the labyrinth of American injustice. "This is not the place for thought that does not end in completeness," he says in an early monologue. "Here it is not easy to be too open or too curious. To wonder how is dangerous." Director Tony Lea capitalizes on this almost Delphic impulse, having designer Elizabeth Grimes Droessler light actor John Harris from beneath in pensive scenes that open and close the work.
But this production's main triumph—and it is a considerable one—lies in the degree to which it does not judge its subjects. An easy task? Apparently not, since in retrospect, every production of this work I've seen up to now has at some point murmured the jaded—and strangely unforgiving—subtext: "How could they have been that stupid?"
That is shameful. This production avoids it.
Lea's actors—including David Ring, Marcia Edmundson, Eric Swenson and an unearthly Lamont Reed—convey instead the pure trust each of their characters put in the legal system. In each of their cases, had they clung to that absolute faith in American justice, they would have died as a result.
We watch as they try to salvage their beliefs and lives. We wonder at the chance occurrences that proved a number of them innocent. At the end, we're left to wonder about all the others; the innocent—but unexonerated—who remain invisible, off stage.
THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA? Manbites Dog Theater—The livestock lover in the title is actually one of the largest MacGuffins in recent theatrical memory. It's human liaisons Edward Albee really has his sights set on, in a deeply thought-provoking work that asks, "If love is incomparable—that is, if different loves truly cannot be compared—what keeps it from being the ultimate dissociative state?"
Under Joseph Megel's discerning direction, Derrick Ivey appears to explore central character Martin at points through choreography as much as drama. As the aging, renowned architect is forced to confess his relationship with the title character to his family, Ivey's Martin folds at times like human origami, all but twisted in two by the simultaneous need—and inability—to make anyone understand what's happened to him.
Elizabeth Lewis Corley gives his wife, Stevie, imposing intellect, wit—and a ferocity that's occasionally too sudden to fully fund the treacherous emotional crosswinds in Albee's writing. Martin's son, Billy, almost seems an afterthought at times in Albee's script, and young actor Gabriel Graetz similarly seems too tentative, while David Berberian is allowed to resubmit a character we've seen him play before, as the boorish not-so-best-friend, Ross. (Through Nov. 18.)
THE SHADOW BOX, Flying Machine Theatre—Michael Cristofer's 1977 Broadway drama in which three different families face terminal illnesses at the same hospice now seems a logical precursor to Margaret Edson's Wit; a work that deals with dying—and therefore living—without becoming overly sentimental, medicinal or merely dated. Director Marc Williams has clearly inspired a septet of noted and rising actors including John Honeycutt, Mariette Booth, Marta King and Jeff Alguire to some of the most honest work I've ever seen from them on stage. Highly recommended. (At Common Ground Theatre, through Nov. 18.)
E-mail Byron at firstname.lastname@example.org.