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LA Theaterworks -- Review- The Caine Mutiny Courtmartial

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The Caine Mutiny Courtmartial by Herman Wouk
                                         reviewed by JMW
Adapted from the Novel and the Broadway play of the same name by Herman Wouk 
      An L.A. Theaterworks production in association with Ford's Theater.  Presented by Voice of America and The Smithsonian Associates and funded in part by The Capital Group Companies Foundation and  U.S. Department of State: Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy. @2001 L.A. Theaterworks.  All rights reserved.

This play, first performed on Broadway in 1954 was based on the book of the same name, also by Herman Wouk and in turn was itself the basis for the classic movie version starring Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg and Fred MacMurray as Lt. Tom Keefer.

 

For those not familiar with this work, this is a courtroom drama, set during World War II.  The trial in question is the court martial of the Executive Officer of the minesweeper USS Caine, Stephen Maryk, for relieving his Captain of command during a typhoon.  The question that forms the crux of the drama is whether Maryk was justified in his action, or whether he acted without cause  --- aka mutiny.

 

As the story opens, the trial has been going on for a while and we meet Lt Maryck (David Fendig) and his defense attorney, Lt. Barney Greenwald (Josh Stamberg).  The next witness to be called to the stand is Lt. Cmdr Phillip Frances Queeg (David Selby), former Captain of the Caine.

 

During the course of his testimony, we learn a good deal about Queeg.  He is a seaman and ships captain of many years experience: abrupt, forthright, a stickler for regulations and duty, but also paranoid, obsessed with detail and minutia and hypersensitive to any slights to his authority.  His officers, mostly reserve officers, hated him, looked down on him and mocked him behind his back.  Lt. Greenwald, in one conversation with Maryck, refers to him as “a mean, stupid sonofabitch… but if that was grounds for deposing your superior officer we wouldn’t have an Army OR a Navy.”  This leads directly to the questions at the heart of this play.  Was Queeg’s behaviour truly irrational and he a dangerous paranoiac whose actions were endangering the ship?  Was Maryk justified in relieving Queeg of command, or did he panic?  Maryk seems  decent and honorable.  Is his version of the events an accurate one, or are there third parties with agendas at work, “stirring the pot” so to speak? 

 

On to the performances.  Josh Stamberg does a marvelous job with the all important role of Lt. Greenberg, the character through whose point of view the audience sees the action of the play.  Lt. Greenberg took the case unwillingly, because he knows the only possible defense he can mount is to turn the tables and try to show that the mutiny was justified – to essentially put Captain Queeg on trial, most likely destroying his career.  Through the course of the play we see his growing distaste for the job it is his duty to perform, culminating in his speech in the second scene of the final act.

 

I was very impressed with David Selby’s turn as Queeg.  I’ve been a movie buff since I was a kid, and have seen the Bogart film many times.  This production was the first of the LA Theaterworks plays I chose to purchase just for this reason.  At that time I had not yet seen Selby in a play or even at a DS Festival, but knew him only through his television and some of his film work.  I was therefore curious as to how he would handle a role which was so strongly associated in the public’s mind with another actor’s portrayal.  As with all the actors in this production, he was able to create a full and layered characterization which didn’t invoke any “ghosts” from the portrayals in the movie.  With this character that is an even more complex task than it would appear, especially in the best known scene from this work, where Queeg slowly and inexorably disintegrates during his testimony, culminating in an angry, paranoid and uncontrollable outburst.  Both Bogart and Lloyd Nolan, who originated this role on Broadway, had the whole range of an actor’s tools at their disposal as well as lighting music and sound effects.  Radio, however, meant that Selby had to deliver the same effect without the benefit of body language, props (save the metal balls that Queeg rolled in his hand when stressed) etc., and had only the range and timbre of his voice to rely upon to convey these emotions.  In my opinion, he succeeded marvelously.

 

In short, I consider this play an absolute “must hear” for any Selby fan who is interested in good psychological drama and excellent acting.  As of this writing it is still available on cassette or CD from LATheaterworks.  Like most audio dramas, these are a bit pricy, costing in the range of about $25; however, I have also seen used copies sold through Ebay and half.com. 

review @ JMW and may not be reprinted in any form without prior written permission from JMW.

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