The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 11, 2006
I'm not sure that a stronger play has opened on Broadway all season than The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial; and this revival, produced with integrity and care by a long list of producers who I will nevertheless name here by way of gratitude—Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Debra Black, Roger Berlind, Ronald Frankel, Terry E. Schnuck, Sheldon Stein, Barry Weisbord, and Roy Furman—is the most satisfyingly riveting and engaging show in town. Here is a theatrical experience that's not only intellectually and spiritually nourishing, but a riproaring grand time as well.
I'd forgotten how uncompromisingly moral Herman Wouk's play is: in our post-modern culture in which values have been seemingly relegated to the dustbin, it's a privilege to see a work that reminds us that, yes, people's actions do mean something: that there are ideals and ideas that stand above the mere tokens of "winning" and "succeeding."
The frame for this exploration of right and wrong is a military trial, the court-martial of Lt. Stephen Maryk, the young executive officer of the minesweeper Caine, stationed in the South Pacific during the latter months of World War II. Maryk is accused of mutiny: during a typhoon, he seized command of the ship from his commander, Philip Francis Queeg. Maryk's contention is that Queeg was mentally unfit to run the ship; that the ship was out of control and that Queeg's orders were inappropriate and potentially lethal to the crew. Queeg denies the charge, relying on his 15 years of experience in the Navy (with a spotless record), and intimating that Maryk and some of his cronies on the Caine had it in for their tough and tenacious commanding officer.
Defending Maryk is Lt. Barney Greenwald, a lawyer-turned-pilot who has recently been wounded and is serving time during his recovery as defense counsel. Greenwald tells his client from the outset that he doesn't approve of what he did, but that he will nevertheless do his best to win the case.
The prosecutor is John Challee, an old friend of Greenwald's and an impressive attorney in his own right.
The play charts, straightforwardly, the progress of the case, with Challee presenting his side in Act One and Greenwald delivering the defense in Act Two. The story is very familiar—and, in any case, easy enough to predict from the outset—and so the suspense lies not in whether Maryk will be acquitted but how: Wouk has masterfully crafted the thing like the best courtroom thriller, building to a terrific climactic sequence in which Queeg testifies for the defense, called to the stand by Greenwald essentially to prove that the tyrannical commander is indeed unfit for command. And then Wouk caps it with a coda that is a surprise—Greenwald reveals what's been going on behind his mercurial and enigmatic actions, and we learn who the real heroes of this particular mutiny and court-martial actually are.
Jerry Zaks stages the proceedings naturalistically and tautly, as if the play were brand new; designers John Lee Beatty (set), William Ivey Long (costumes), and Paul Gallo (lighting) never stray from the reality they're offering the audience, but neither do they stint—everything about the production is solidly first-class.
The ensemble is similarly top-notch. The showiest role is Queeg, and Zeljko Ivanek bites into it and delivers the brilliant performance that his fans know he has in him. He's engaging, even breezy, when we meet him in the first act; and then when he returns for his cross-examination, he seems to literally diminish right before our eyes. There's a moment when we see him go over the edge and, more than that, realize that he's done so; he reaches into his pocket for the marbles that are his own peculiar security blanket with a self-aware sadness that tells us everything we need to know about this man at this particular moment. But Ivanek invests Queeg with great complexity, and when he tells the tribunal that he's a kind-hearted man, we believe him. This portrayal is the stuff of legend, and when Ivanek, as Queeg, made his final long exit from the witness stand the audience rewarded him with the greatest possible tribute—a painful, deafening silence.
Queeg's nemesis, as it were, is David Schwimmer's Greenwald, a deft and carefully thought-out characterization that—and I hate to have to say this, but it seems necessary—bears no resemblance whatsoever to Ross Geller, the "Friend" that Schwimmer played on TV for years and years. No, this is a fine, theatrical performance, one that lets us slowly enter into the heart and soul of a conflicted and complicated man. Tim Daly, as Challee, has a less challenging role but nonetheless offers a rich and interesting take on it; he has a sublime moment in repose, during Queeg's cross-examination, when it becomes clear to us that he's realized for the first time that he's in danger of losing his case, and his stealthy, shark-like recovery from that realization makes for one of the play's sharpest surprises.
There are 17 other actors in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, some of them essentially supernumeraries, silently observing from the bench or at a party, but to a man, they're doing splendid work. Several of the supporting players have opportunities to make very strong impressions: Geoffrey Nauffts as Maryk's best pal, a budding novelist; Joe Sikora as Maryk, growing in confidence as he comes to know and understand his lawyer; Paul David Story as a young and sparsely educated signalman; Tom Nelis as a self-important Navy psychologist; and especially Murphy Guyer, in what may be the most perfectly natural performance I've seen on stage all season, as the prosecution's expert witness, an authoritative and by-the-books Navy veteran named Captain Randolph Southard. Anchoring the proceedings as the chief judge of the tribunal is Terry Beaver, who embodies the wisdom and justice that befit this particular office; I was heartened that this character, unlike too many contemporary counterparts, is able to separate personal from professional obligations.
Which takes me back to where I began, and to why I was so moved and stimulated by The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. This is, above all else, a play that explores and values principles, that understands that problems aren't black and white and that being victorious and being right aren't the same thing at all. The moral quagmire that Wouk examines here is uncomfortable and complicated, and, I'm afraid, very much out of fashion at the moment. I urge you to buck the trend and take this play's important journey to the heart of one man's convictions; let yourself get caught up in this powerful, compelling, and—best of all—very entertaining work of theatre!