Herman Wouk’s own dramatization of the court-martial section of the novel “The Caine Mutiny” remains an intense and satisfying drama about men, mutiny, and morality. This is despite a rather stiff and distancing staging, the work of veteran director Jerry Zaks (more than 30 Broadway productions including last season’s “La Cage aux Folles”). The unlikely entrapment, humiliation, and devastation of a conflicted young defense attorney still pack an emotional wallop that sneaks up on you quite unexpectedly.
The hold that the play has on us is in seeing how 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, we are impelled 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 an audience. However, audiences in today’s politically-charged times 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.
Although David Schwimmer is no stranger to the stage, a co-founder of the Lookingglass Theater Company in Chicago, he is making his Broadway debut. Best known for his role in the hit television comedy series “Friends,” Schwimmer 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 Cain. 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, almost an attempt 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. But, 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.-based psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry at George Washington University Medical School. He is the author of the best-selling book “Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President.” Whether you have access to his book, or simply do a Web search for links to Justin Frank and George Bush, you will undoubtedly be astounded by the similarities between Frank’s analysis of Bush and those expressed about Queeg in the play.
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. 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, contribute admirably.
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.**
“The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,” the Schoenfeld Theater, 236 West 45th Street. 212-239-6200.