Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Adrift in the South Pacific

The cast of Mister Roberts.

The New Rep's publicity for Mister Roberts, the WWII-era Henry Fonda vehicle that won a Tony on Broadway and then Oscars on the big screen, says that it's "timeless."

But that's precisely what the play doesn't seem to be in Kate Warner's classy but slightly slack production. This is partly because its sailor hijinks and officer-corps conflicts feel tired (admittedly, because they became the source for so many Caine-Mutiny/Sergeant-Bilko imitations). But perhaps more importantly, the script's post-war attitude toward armed conflict is simply out of synch with our own. Indeed, seen through the contemporary prism of our conflicts in the Middle East, the longing of its eponymous character to see action seems less idealistic than slightly insane. And it doesn't help that Warner lacks an actor who can convey that supposed idealism as poignantly as Henry Fonda could - nor, it must be said, does her own handling of the ensemble rise beyond the assured to the inspired.

To be fair, the show is probably still seaworthy, even if, like the old junk Mr. Roberts is stuck on, it seems to drift; perhaps it chiefly disappoints because hopes for Ms. Warner's debut have been running so high. When I met her last spring, Warner struck me as smart and savvy, and in the meantime she seems to have won over just about every theatre constituency in town; you could all but feel a wave of good will rolling her way as she stepped onto the stage to introduce her maiden effort. Even greater expectations have been riding on her shoulders (and soldiers) since the recent premiere of Diane Paulus's asinine Donkey Show at the A.R.T. (which has been met with private cries of dismay by the local critics, whatever their reviews may say). Thus Warner had begun to seem like our one hope that a female artistic director could produce work at the same level as Rick Lombardo's, or perhaps even Robert Woodruff's.

Well, I'm afraid the jury's still out on that one, although Warner might prove to have the right stuff, given the right material. But Mister Roberts definitely isn't the right material, and Warner's choice of it for her debut remains one of the season's major mysteries. For to put over its gently rueful (but sometimes slight) mix of comedy and drama, you'd have to have a crack ensemble with a built-in rapport all but tailored to the play; instead, Warner has assembled a talented cast that consists largely of near-misses when it comes to type. Jonathan Popp, for instance, is rather too convincing a lothario for the Jack Lemmon role, and the reliably crusty Paul D. Farwell this time lacks the wit Jimmy Cagney brought to the ship's boorish martinet of a captain. Most damaging of all, Thomas Piper's Mr. Roberts (above, with Farwell) strikes us as somewhat brooding, rather than haunting us with the doomed idealism that Henry Fonda exuded without even trying. So it's no surprise that the sense of masculine intimacy (and even whimsy) at the core of the drama never actually materializes, however heartily everyone carries on. (It doesn't help that Patrick Lynch's generally-evocative set places key scenes high up on a top deck.)

Indeed, a sense of lost idealism is probably the missing key to the puzzle of this competent, but hardly dazzling, play's original popularity. For what writers Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan (yes, that Joshua Logan) managed to do within its confines was tap into an already-incipient nostalgia for "the good war's" sense of moral purpose. Mr. Roberts, you see, actually longs to join the battleships he sees passing in the night, steaming toward unseen conflagrations, as any man of quality faced with the choices of World War II might do. And in 1948, the crowds that flocked to the play understood and identified with that longing, too, even as they understood that Mr. Roberts's idealism would destroy him - and that his bureaucratic nemesis represented the "company man" the nation had come to be dominated by. But today, despite the cries of those who would exploit the horrors of 9/11, the country has decidedly not coalesced around a sense of shared purpose, and the trust in our military ideals, on which this text depends, is all but extinct. Thus it's now a nostalgia piece twice removed - a rather tenuous basis for a subtle ensemble comedy - and it plays within a strangely sad frame of failed wish fulfillment. This simply isn't the way America is anymore, and a dozen revivals of Mister Roberts can do nothing to change that.

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