PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial: The Cracking of Captain Queeg

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08 May 2006

David Schwimmer; Zeljko Ivanek; Herman Wouk; Tim Daly; Jeffrey Richards; Patricia Clarkson & Jerry Zaks; Dana Ivey; Fran Drescher; Eric Bogosian; Audra McDonald; J. Robert Spencer; Michael Cerveris.
David Schwimmer; Zeljko Ivanek; Herman Wouk; Tim Daly; Jeffrey Richards; Patricia Clarkson & Jerry Zaks; Dana Ivey; Fran Drescher; Eric Bogosian; Audra McDonald; J. Robert Spencer; Michael Cerveris.
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

There’s a good six- or seven-minute stretch in the second act of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which opened May 7 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, where the only movement on its crowded stage are the fingers of the court stenographer (Tom Gottlieb) going 90 mph and the man on the witness stand (Zeljko Ivanek) wagging his finger at those accusing him of incompetence under fire and proving their point with every gesture.

The other nine men on stage stare in sad, stunned silence at the crumbling of an old-guard Navy veteran as Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg goes spectacularly to pieces.

When Ivanek finishes his job, having babbled to an embarrassed stopping-point, he rises unsteadily, pulls together what’s left of his tattered dignity and makes a slow, pained exit.

To thunderous and prolonged applause.

This has been a common occurrence for Queegs over the years, according to Herman Wouk, the man who wrote the scene when he made a play of his 1952 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Caine Mutiny." The beauty of this revival is that, when Wouk works, it transports you back to that very stage where the play premiered in 1954 (it was known as the Plymouth in those days) in that long-gone golden age of Broadway.

Wouk came in for his fair share of thunderous and prolonged applause when he was summoned to the stage by David Schwimmer, who stars here as Lt. Barney Greenwald, the attorney who reluctantly defends the officer who has relieved Queeg of his command.

Moving even slower than Queeg in defeated retreat, Wouk—who will be 91 in 20 days—made his way to close to center-stage, then spoke in a voice that was barely audible at the outset but rose and soared with the hurricane force of a deep personal commitment.

“With thanks to the brave producers, with thanks to the brilliant direction, with thanks to this great company,” he declared with gathering passion, “I dedicate this production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial to the guys in Iraq who fight the war.”

This second Broadway revival of the classic courtroomer came with the chaotic commotion generally accompanying pop-stars trying a change-of-pace—in this case Schwimmer, through a decade of TV’s “Friends”—a noise second only to that generated by the girl next door at the Jacobs in Three Days of Rain. Fans were out in droves.

The revival’s lead producer, Jeffrey Richards, arrived at the Schoenfeld looking snappy in a Naval uniform he had the wardrobe lady snag for him (Richards was a publicist long before he was a producer—and, as of last year’s Glengarry Glen Ross, a Tony-winning producer at that). On his arm was his most frequently employed actress, Elizabeth Ashley, exuding her Subdued Exuberance aura, insisting to the photographers the only thing worth photographing was her sexy, spaghetti-stringed sandals. (They were sexy.)

Jerry Zaks, an actor who turned into one of Broadway’s best “actor directors,” praised all hands. “They did great—they all did great,” he cheers. “I love the whole company. Every day we’d find another piece of the puzzle to fit together. I loved going to work because these actors had no personal agendas to screw up the work. They just came to work every day. I know that must sound like a cliche, but I’m tellin' ya: they came and they worked and worked hard and they never moaned. They just worked, and I think it shows.”

Schwimmer did a nod back to Zaks for steering him through his Broadway debut. “Jerry is so fantastic,” he says. “He kept everyone on their toes and really worked on every actor’s individual performance, and, as you see, every actor has such a distinct character.”

Also making his Broadway debut was Joe Sikora, in the role of the accused, Lt. Stephen Maryk. The prosecuting attorney, Lt. Com. John Challee, was played by an almost-as-green Tim Daly, in his first time back on the Main Stem since 1987 when he won a Theatre World Award for Tina Howe’s Coastal Disturbances—“many years ago,” he sighs wistfully. His leading lady in that, Annette Bening, went directly to Hollywood, married her first leading man (Warren Beatty), had a brood of four and only now is inching back to the stage (recently in The Cherry Orchard at the Ahmanson in L.A.).

The after-party spilled over four floors of Sardi’s, another deep bow to the bygone glories of Broadway. Tyne Daly, singing the praises of her little brother at the table, had a slight regret: “I was hoping we would be playing together, but Rabbit Hole closed just a little too soon for us to overlap. Maybe, next time.”

Four of Wouk’s five nephews were in attendance. One, Jordan Wouk, went to the same college as producer Richards. “I don’t know if you’re aware of it,” he says, “but Herman writes all the time. He’s writing right now another novel. That’s all he does. He says, ‘What [else] am I going to do?’ When he was at Columbia, he wrote the jester shows. He was a gag writer for Fred Allen at the beginning, and then he went to war.”

Doubtlessly, Wouk encountered officers with the same extreme good-bad stripes as Queeg. Ivanek revels in the contradictions. “To me, the writing is so good and so clearly plotted that it is almost like an orchestration,” he says, “trying to figure out how to carry all of that through and not peak too soon and when to start giving things away.

“There are nights when there is no applause. Sometimes it just feels deathly quiet afterwards, so I’ll take that. That seems as good as applause.”

Geoffrey Nauffts, an actor with edge, plays the true villain of the piece—Lt. Thomas Keefer, a cynical, brainy novelist and all-around snake-in-the-grass who manipulates the mutiny and lets Maryk take the fall by himself. He gets a drink flung in his face for his skullduggery—eight times a week. The only actor with a worse job on Broadway is Edward Hibbert, who is repeatedly spewed with water by Georgia Engels in The Drowsy Chaperone. Nauffts reacts great to the come-uppance. “I don’t normally get to play the bad guy. I do on television sometimes, but on stage not much. So this is fun.”

For a training film, he had a looksee at the 1954 film in which Keefer was played by, of all people, Fred MacMurray—and rather brilliantly. "There’s a lot more to the role in the movie. You really get to see his manipulation. The part is more elusive in the play. It’s complicated. With as little as we have, you have to do a lot. That’s the challenge of it."

Gottleib put in his stenography homework, like any actor who prepares. “I had a little tutorial by a stenography consultant who helped us with the show,” he says, “and I just did a little research of my own, going to criminal courts and stuff like that. More than anything, I’m trying to be unobtrusive and not pull focus from what’s going on and just contribute to the overall look of the show.”

There are 11 speaking roles in the play, but the impressive curtain call is an unbroken line of 20 uniformed actors—members of the court, guards, orderlies and revelers at a particularly bitter victory party after the verdict comes in. Nine of them serve silently, sans dialogue.

“One of the original guys who didn’t have a word,” notes Richards, “was Jim Bumgarner, who became James Garner.” He even went on tour with the cast Charles Laughton directed—Henry Fonda, Lloyd Nolan, John Hodiak—landing in Hollywood.

“I keep thinking what it must have been like to have heard the words that David Schwimmer says so eloquently at the end of the show tonight: ‘As I suppose you all know, I’m a Jew,’” Richards remarks. “I can’t imagine how Henry Fonda said that.

“What Herman said at the end when he dedicated this play to the boys fighting the war in Iraq, I thought it was such a true and apolitical statement,” says Richards. ”When this play first came out—when you came back from serving in the last great good war that we were involved in—there was the G.I. Bill of Rights. The American soldier was embraced, and he was able to get into the work force very easily. It was a different era. Women were not part of the work force then. Minorities were not part of the work force at certain levels then because of so much discrimination. Nowadays, the boys who fight the wars in Iraq are giving up three or four years and they can never catch up. That’s what, I think, he’s saying. They are putting themselves in the line of fire for us, and we need to respect them. This is a play that will certainly bring up a lot of discussion about betrayal and loyalty.”


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