Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Raising Caine

Theater-goers and military drama buffs, take note: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial returns to Broadway on 14 May, for a limited summer engagement.

The latest revival of Herman Wouk's landmark World War II drama comes 52 years after its Broadway debut, and will feature some familiar faces. Former Friends star David Schwimmer leads the cast as Marine lawyer Barney Greenwald, assigned to defend the officers of the U.S.S. Caine, on charges of staging a mutiny.

While the Caine and its story are fiction, writer Herman Wouk based his mutiny on a real-life event: a 1944 typhoon that devastated a U.S. naval fleet (commanded by Admiral William Halsey). With his ship about to capsize at the height of the storm, the Caine's executive officer (Lt Steve Mayrk) relieves the martinet Captain (Lt Cmdr Phillip Queeg) from command to save the vessel and its crew. To save his client (Mayrk) from the gallows, Greenwald must reveal Queeg's neurotic behavior on the witness stand, destroying the captain's credibility, career and reputation in a legendary courtroom showdown. Wouk's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, a successful Hollywood film version of the book, and of course, the stage play, have made "Queeg," his frantic search for "stolen" strawberries, and his nervous rolling of steel marbles synonmyous with military incompetence.

Joining Schwimmer in the cast is Tim Daly (best know for his long stint on the sitcom Wings) as Navy prosecutor Lt John Challee; Broadway veteran Zeljko Ivanek as Lt Cmdr Queeg, Joe Sikora as Mayrk and Geoffrey Nauffts in the pivotal role of Lt Thomas Keefer, the aspiring novelist who proves to be the real "author" of the Caine Mutiny.

While Wouk's play remains riveting, this production clearly has some big shoes to fill. Henry Fonda starred as Greenwald in the original Broadway version, although I'd argue that he was miscast in the role. The film adaptation is unforgettable--the best military "legal thriller" of all time, with an all-star cast: Humphrey Bogart as Capt Queeg, Van Johnson as Mayrk, Jose Ferrer (in a star-making turn) as Barney Greenwald, and Fred MacMurray--playing effectively against his "good guy" stereotype--as the duplicitous, calculating Keefer. While the film is longer than the play--and covers far more dramatic territory--it remains the benchmark for any production involving the U.S.S. Caine.

In fact, my only complaint with the movie--and most stage versions--is that the cast members are too old. In Wouk's novel, Lt Cmdr Queeg (Annapolis class of '36) is about 30; the rest of the wardroom in their early 20s. Bogart tackled the role of Queeg--one his finest film performances--at the age of 54; the other actors (MacMurray, Johnson, Ferrer) were also at least 10 years too old for their roles. The same holds true for the new Broadway production; perhaps one day, an enterprising theater company will stage a version with a more youthful cast, closer to what Wouk originally had in mind.

The new production is currently in previews, and I haven't heard any advance buzz on the show. Still, I have high hopes for the new stage version, in part because the director and cast seem willing to play it straight, and avoid any comparisons between the Caine and the current situation in Iraq. Director Jerry Zaks (better know for his Broadway comedies and musicals) said, in a recent interview, that anyone comparing the play to the Iraqi conflict would be "on thin ice." That would be a refreshing change for Broadway, which seems to demand a political angle in almost any production.

Still, I'm guessing that current Times critic Ben Brantley and columnist Frank Rich will give it the old college try, using their forums to draw strained parallels between hapless Capt Queeg and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Memo to Ben and Frank: Wouk's play speaks for itself--don't read too much into this one. Sit back, shut up and enjoy the show.

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