The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial by Herman Wouk. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Setting by John Lee Beatty. Costumes by William Ivey Long. Lighting by Paul Gallo. Sound by Dan Moses Schreier. Cast: David Schwimmer, Zeljko Ivanek, Tim Daly, featuring Terry Beaver, Murphy Guyer, Joe Sikora, with Robert L. Devaney, Scott Ferrara, Ben Fox, Geoffrey Nauffts, Tom Nelis, Brian Reddy, Paul David Story, Peter Bradbury, Denis Butkus, Tom Gottlieb, Greg McFadden, Michael Quinlan, Brian Russell, Doug Stender.
Changing as he does from nonentity to villain to wounded animal to prospective hero, Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg is the traditional lynchpin of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. Beginning as one of many witnesses for the prosecution and ending as the star witness for the defense, he's always been responsible for diverting the direction of Herman Wouk's incisive courtroom melodrama.
But in the new revival at the Schoenfeld, Queeg takes on a greater responsibility: He must transform a sitcom into theatre.
It's a challenge that could be considered the entertainment equivalent of storming the beach at Normandy. Some actors might rightfully be cowed by an imposing director (four-time Tony winner Jerry Zaks) and superstar castmates who made their names in high-profile 30-minute comedies on NBC (David Schwimmer and Tim Daly), and fall under their superficial spell. Were Queeg played by just about anyone under these circumstances, all bets would be off.
Zeljko Ivanek, however, is not just anyone. A resourceful and highly adaptable theatre actor who excels at playing moderately disturbed authority figures (and did as recently as last season, in The Pillowman), he not only survives the bloodbath of indifference surrounding him, but emerges victorious, as if awaiting the Silver Star for bravery.
Such an honor would not be undeserved here. Without the businessman-like balance Ivanek brings to the impassionedly imbalanced Queeg, there would be nothing to recommend about this waterlogged mounting of the 1954 play, which Wouk based on his own novel. Yet when Queeg takes the stand for the defense in the second act and slowly places a noose around his own neck, you get the theatrical jolt you've been craving since the curtain rose.
In the first act, under the questioning of prosecutor Lieutenant Commander John Challee (Daly), Ivanek is headstrong and sure, strongly defending his choices as commander of the destroyer-minesweeper Caine. But when interrogated by defense attorney Barney Greenwald (Schwimmer), he begins melting like an ice cube on a hot day. Ivanek seems to physically shrink as his fašade of self-confidence starts topples around him, and as his nervousness mounts, he sheds years off his life and morphs into a frightened child for whom the merest accusation is like a stab wound.
Commanding as Ivanek's performance is, it's an act of self-mutilation during what should be a lacerating duel. Queeg isn't the one on trial; that's Lieutenant Stephen Meryk (Joe Sikora), who stands accused of mutinously relieving Queeg during a typhoon. But Greenwald believes that casting doubt on Queeg's mental stability is the only way to get Meryk off, and thus takes him on head-to-head.
But Schwimmer displays no determined, fast-on-his-feet fire. His stiff, dumbstruck manner more recalls Ross Geller, the paleontologist he played on the long-running Friends, than the ordered disciplinarian who detonate the chain of command that for him is everything. His emotions range from sly calmness to calm slyness, with none of the shading you'd expect from someone as conflicted as Greenwald who's under pressure not far removed from Queeg's (Greenwald states outright that he'd rather prosecute Meryk than defend him).
Daly likewise mimics his Joe Hackett from TV's Wings, down to the toothy grins and meaningful pauses that separate the serious comedic actors from the amateurs. Sikora and the parade of prosecution witnesses resound with all the coherence of Cameo Stars during May Sweeps (though these include no big names). The most successful are Brian Reddy and Tom Nelis as two doctors who pinpoint Queeg's psychological problems, but even they reduce to one-note comedy roles that would benefit from more depth. Even Terry Beaver chooses empty jocularity instead of some more interesting officiousness as the court-martial's judge.
The pervasiveness of this flattening funny-ing must have been Zaks's intentional choice, though the reasoning behind it is never entirely clear. (Though Schwimmer and Daly made their names in television, they both have significant stage experience.) Nonetheless, the effect is devastating: It reduces this tale of military morality (which has no civilian analogue) to one of near-insignificance, as colorless and nondescript as John Lee Beatty's bus-and-truck courtroom set. (William Ivey Long's crisp Navy blues and Paul Gallo's lights are better.)
It's especially unfortunate given the perceived current favor of the United States military, in America and around the world. Whether you agree or disagree with the arguments on which Wouk's play turns - especially in the final scene, which throws a wicked wrench into the machinery of both the characters' prejudices and ours - the issues raised are important ones deserving the serious discussion and debate that the best theatre can provoke.
That makes Ivanek still more compelling, as he's the only fully realized embodiment of the play's most crucial theme that nothing can be accepted at face value. Just as you feel you know and understand Queeg, new information forces you to reevaluate your judgments, yet Ivanek's Queeg never actually changes; you just see him differently. It's not until the end of both his climactic breakdown and the play itself that you can see all of both sides of the issue.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial demands an equally considered, thoughtful examination of its elements to elicit the most powerful impact on the way we view the world and those who fight to protect our part of it. Zaks has structured his production for people who just can't wait to change the channel.