Anyone interested in seeing a brilliantly crafted play -- a throwback to that long-gone era when scripts cared more about people than dogma -- should rush to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis to see a rare professional revival of Mister Roberts. This buoyant comedy-drama is so skillfully structured that its very expertise is cause for warm nostalgia.
Set onboard the aptly named Reluctant, a rusty U.S. Navy supply ship safely hidden in the back islands of the Pacific in the waning days of World War II, Mister Roberts concerns a junior-grade lieutenant who refuses to believe that dispensing toothpaste and toilet paper is a significant contribution to the war effort. Doug Roberts is determined to join the fighting. Now that the war is winding down, his goal of getting himself transferred off this tired old bucket assumes a new urgency.
Exuberantly written by Joshua Logan with the assistance of Thomas Heggen (who authored the best-selling 1946 novel on which the script is based), this depiction of quiet heroism in the face of indolence and apathy ran for nearly three years when it was produced on Broadway in 1948.
So if Mister Roberts is so terrific, why doesn't it get staged more often?
Primarily for two reasons. First, its cast is enormous and, with one exception, all male. The Broadway production employed 30 actors; the current Rep version tries to pass muster with 21 -- which, while still a considerable number, doesn't quite work; at times this Reluctant more resembles a ghost ship than a supply ship.
Second, any new Mister Roberts must exist in the shadow of the definitive 1955 movie adaptation starring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon. "It's hard to beat the movie," someone muttered as the opening-night audience filed out of the theater. No dispute there. But the Rep is to be commended for resurrecting a leakproof script that commercial theaters no longer can afford to mount.
Among the ship's officers, Robert Elliott's portrayal of the brutish captain dominates the evening. Elliott effectively commands the play from the opening minutes, even though he doesn't utter his first line until a half-hour in. Greg McFadden is a charmingly impish Ensign Pulver. During those few minutes when Elliott and McFadden are onstage together, the production is pure gold. As the rational Doc, Joneal Joplin admirably understands that his function is to provide an understated Horatio to Mister Roberts' Hamlet.
The crew is a mixed bag. Apparently with the approval of director Edward Stern, some of these sailors come off like rejects from a road company of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Those who play it straightest -- Gary McGurk, so authentic as the crusty Dowdy that you wonder if he was shanghaied off a freighter and flown directly to Webster Groves; Josh Renfree, who as the simple-minded Lindstrom knows how to blend into the background, then touch your heart with an understated line like, "It's a palm tree, see" -- are truest to the story's intentions.
But despite an evening of sundry virtues, a Mister Roberts without a Mister Roberts is skirting treacherous shoals. As of opening night, Bill Doyle had not yet relaxed into the title role. One sensed that this Mister Roberts was not listening to the other characters onstage; Doyle looked like an actor waiting for his next cue. He was unable to convey Roberts' emotions. (How can you exclaim, "This is the greatest day in the world," without any genuine enthusiasm?) This was not a heroic performance.
But more dispiriting even than the lack of a persuasive central character, this production's most troubling flaw is its failure to create a universe in which the play can exist. It's difficult to accept that these sailors have really strayed from the Navy; it's even difficult to accept that they're on a ship. Curiously, the sensitive artwork on the playbill cover evokes the remote lost world that is Mister Roberts more persuasively than does the staging (which, among other questionable choices, continually insists on steering the captain away from Roberts during their most intense confrontations).
Yet despite these deficiencies, one can still be captivated by such an efficient and engaging piece of writing. The Rep might not be offering a consummate Mister Roberts, but this snappy tribute to the American spirit still delivers the fastest 160 minutes in town.