The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial

A Red Orchid Theatre

By Adam Langer

A Red Orchid Theatre’s cast for The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is like one of those all-star lineups Hollywood used to throw together for rather stiffly written 60s and 70s war movies. To be sure, Herman Wouk’s play is far better crafted than, say, A Bridge Too Far or The Green Berets. But his somewhat dated and transparent psychological courtroom drama shares with these lesser works a confining, formulaic structure, forcing the actors to subject their personalities to their roles just as the obedient men they represent subject theirs to the military.

Especially in the era of O.J. and Oliver North, as we’ve become overly familiar with the ins and outs of the legal process, courtroom drama is theater with one hand tied behind its back. Military courtroom drama, which turns performers into “Yessir, Nosir” automatons, pretty much ties the other hand behind the back. And mounting a 40-year-old work complete with creaky, simplistic notions of human personality and psychology is an even tougher task. Director Wilson Milam and his mostly stellar cast work hard but don’t quite succeed at reviving Wouk’s classic.

The normally electric Frank Dominelli, for example, can do little more than embody a quiet, brooding intensity as the honest, gullible hero, Lieutenant Stephen Maryk, on trial for mutiny after wresting control of the USS Caine from the mentally incompetent Captain Queeg during a typhoon. The most intensely dramatic moments in Maryk’s story take place offstage, before the play begins, when this high-minded officer gradually began to believe that his captain was losing his mind. The script mostly gives Maryk Pinteresque silences and heartfelt monosyllabic responses, through which we must piece together the story. Dominelli does these things admirably, but the script doesn’t allow him much else.

Sporadic moments of gripping drama and humor do erupt, particularly during the testimony by Maryk’s fellow sailors. Guy Van Swearingen gives a memorably caustic performance as Lieutenant Keith, an ill-tempered, hardened tar who has a number of beefs against Queeg; Gordon Gillespie is amusing and eccentric in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” sort of way as Captain Randolph Southard, a bitchy expert on ship handling; and Lawrence Grimm is appropriately smug as Lieutenant Thomas Keefer, the would-be author of an exposé on life in the navy who prefers writing short stories to fighting Nazis and put ideas of mutiny into Maryk’s head. But Matt Scharff is largely wasted in the role of the fearful country bumpkin Junius Urban, a part that seems to have been created for comic relief but provides no comedy. Lording over the proceedings is the smooth and charismatic Jeffrey Mangrum as the wonderfully fair-minded Captain Blakely, the judge all of us would like to face.

Tracy Letts and Benjamin Werling have the showiest roles as the liberal Jewish defense attorney Barney Greenwald and the cold, by-the-books anti-Semitic prosecutor Jack Challee. But only Letts, in a quirky and intense performance, rises above the “where were you on the night of November 21st?” cliches to create a wholly believable character. In the play’s revelatory epilogue, when the case has been decided and the actors are allowed to leave the courtroom, Letts compellingly delivers Greenwald’s monologue about the hypocrisy of the trial we’ve just witnessed. His brief speech and the reactions to it by the other characters make for exciting, memorable theater, though the scene comes far too late to make Wouk’s play seem relevant. Still, it’s no coincidence that this is the one time in the play when the performers are not reined in by their rank or their courtroom roles.

The effective moments, however, are very brief, largely overwhelmed by stock courtroom exchanges and hackneyed discussions of Rorschach tests and repressed sexual desires in a militaristic society that reinforces the sometimes neurotic and obsessive-compulsive behavior required to be a good soldier and win wars. The testimony provided by two doctors (Doug Vickers and Steve Juergens) offers little more than cliches about insanity; at times it even comes off as self-parody, especially the weighty pronouncement that “we live in a sick civilization. The well people are the exceptions.” And though it may have seemed daring or original to have Captain Queeg literally playing with his balls in the original stage and film versions, it comes off here as blatant and crass.

In the end, though, what cripples this production is Jeff Still’s mannered, obvious performance in the key role of Captain Queeg, Wouk’s greatest creation here. He is at first glance the ruthless, petty, manipulative embodiment of brinkmanship concealed under a cloak of stout belief in rules and regulations, a man who would endanger the health and sanity of his own crew to discover who ate an extra portion of strawberries. But he’s also the type of soldier who allows the military to thrive. And though we may revel in his downfall, Queeg is ultimately a tragic figure of epic proportions, in some ways driven to madness by the anal perfectionism that made him a success.

Queeg is the one element of Wouk’s play that can still fascinate and provoke, and regrettably it’s the one aspect of Red Orchid’s production that fails to deliver. Even the few members of the audience who don’t have Humphrey Bogart’s sweaty, maniacal film performance etched in their brains are unlikely to believe in the bellicose, blustery, Nixon-like Still, who gives the character a distressingly facile reading. When Greenwald makes Queeg take the stand, Letts seems a malicious cat playing with a pathetically stupid mouse who can’t help but be devoured; and when Greenwald systematically takes Queeg apart, Still’s descent into madness isn’t tragic but as dully predictable as much of the rest of Wouk’s play.