- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2003

There isn’t anything ailing the American Century Theater’s production of “Mister Roberts” that more rehearsal, a better set and charged connections between the actors couldn’t cure.

When a live goat has the best comic timing in the bunch, you know something’s amiss.

Director Jack Marshall gets high marks for reviving this touching comedy, which was a gigantic Broadway hit in 1948 (adapted and directed by the legendary theater impresario Josh Logan) before going on to become an even bigger movie in 1955 starring Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, James Cagney and William Powell.

The stage version of “Mister Roberts” is rarely produced because the ghosts of the classic film most likely would haunt any staging. The play stands beautifully on its own, however, and comparisons to the movie are not the problem with American Century’s production.

“Mister Roberts” in any version requires an ensemble cast every bit as tight and loyal as the crew of the World War II cargo ship depicted in the story line. After all, the show hinges on the relationships forged between officers and sailors on this “bucket” sailing in the safer part of the Pacific during the waning days of the war.

The ship is under the command of the blustery nincompoop Captain (David Jourdan), who cares for his palm trees more than his crew. Yet the natural leader is Mister Roberts (Timothy Andres Pabon), a lieutenant who longs to see real combat but cares enough about his men to trade the possibility of a warship transfer for their first liberty leave in more than a year.

Mister Roberts remarks that the ship sails “from tedium to apathy and back again,” but the crude affection and self-sacrifice among the crew show him more about human nature and honor than could any battlefield. He also is enlightened by his relationships with his fellow officers: Ensign Pulver (John Tweel), a good-natured lech who cooks up improbable schemes and inventions in his idle hours, and Doc (John C. Bailey), the laconic medic who has seen it all.

A feeling of do-or-die camaraderie is essential for both the comedic and mushy parts to work, but in this show, everyone seems emotionally and physically estranged from both themselves and one another. There is a lot of awkwardness with their bodies, let alone their lines.

Flubbing a line or two in a play is normal, but when it becomes chronic, the audience becomes nervous. The problem in this production was not only botched dialogue, but a tendency to miss cues and tread all over one another’s lines.

It is hard to get any rhythm going, much less convey that the crew members are thicker than blood brothers, when the cast seems uncomfortable with the text. The yawning, scantily dressed set does not help with the intimacy problem, either.

There are two warm, standout performances: Mr. Tweel’s bravely un-Jack Lemmon-like take on Ensign Pulver and Joe Cronin as the crusty, slang-slinging sailor Dolan.

As for the goat, she has a promising career in show biz.

*1/2

WHAT: “Mr. Roberts,” by Josh Logan, based on Thomas Heggen’s novel

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Running in repertory with “If Only in My Dreams” through Jan. 31.

WHERE: American Century Theater, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington .

TICKETS: $18 to $26

PHONE: 703/553-8782


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