- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

Now hear this. Now hear this: The classic 1948 Tony Award-winning Navy comedy “Mister Roberts” is playing at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. A hero, a villain and a bunch of lovable lunkheads, but only one nurse, working together on a U.S. Navy supply ship and doing their best to survive boredom in the Pacific theater near the close of World War II. All the corny jokes and sentimental moments you can pack into an evening. That is all.

Although Joshua Logan and Thomas Heggen’s drama got its start on Broadway, the story is best known in its 1955 cinematic incarnation, which starred James Cagney as the villainous captain, Jack Lemmon — who won an Oscar for the role — as the cowardly Ensign Pulver, and Henry Fonda — who originated the role on Broadway — as Mr. Roberts. As is often the case, the play has more bite than the film, and it’s a pleasure to see it in its original version after many years of neglect.

“Mister Roberts” is not great drama. It is in many ways a cliched period piece, its hero and villain a bit too two-dimensional to be believed and its scuzzy crew too uniformly infused with the proverbial hearts of gold. Yet now, at this remove of time, it stands as a surprisingly heartwarming monument to the peak achievement of the “greatest generation,” the men and women who fought the great war against fascism with unquestioning patriotism, self-effacing courage and little sense of moral ambiguity.

Set entirely aboard ship — well-distanced from major theaters of battle — “Mister Roberts” is a relatively plotless construct that pits a nasty captain (nicely played with a swell lower-class Boston accent by Frank Deal) against his college-boy first officer, Lt. Roberts (Michael Dempsey), and a sullen crew that hasn’t been off the ship in 18 months.

Roberts irritates the captain with his weekly, and increasingly inflammatory, requests for transfer to the war zone while at the same time plotting to get his men the liberty they so desperately crave.

This Kennedy Center production wisely has chosen not to make foolish edits in the script. Thus, a refreshing lack of political correctness abounds in this production, including less-than-polite ethnic references to the enemy and earnest discussions of female attributes that would make even Harvard’s Larry Summers cringe.

Kudos to the swell Liberty Ship that serves as the backdrop to the play. Complete with a swiveling bridge and a working winch against a backdrop of surprisingly Pacific-looking clouds, the set conjures up a realistic vision of Navy life in wartime.

Although this production has a lot of things going for it, it catches fire only infrequently, usually when the men are roistering or otherwise carrying on. The script’s unabashed patriotism and comic sentimentalism are genuine. Yet one wonders whether director Robert Longbottom really believes that such people, such a lack of irony, actually could have existed.

This ambivalence is most noticeable in Mr. Dempsey’s Roberts, the drama’s central character. True, Mr. Dempsey delivers his lines with gusto. Yet one senses a lack of genuine belief in the ideals Roberts expresses.

This is not usually the case with Mr. Deal’s bitter captain, Stephen Kunken’s brilliantly underplayed Doc or Hunter Foster’s impish Ensign Pulver. But all these characters play off Mr. Roberts, and to the extent that Mr. Dempsey cannot convey heroic, patriotic conviction, he impairs the cast’s ability to play off against him.

Although this production of “Mister Roberts” is not a must-see, it is nevertheless a pleasant, nostalgic evening of theater that does a credible job of resurrecting a long-gone era when most of America believed in the essential rightness of our democratic ideals.

**1/2

WHAT: “Mister Roberts,” a comedy by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan

WHERE: Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; additional matinees Thursday and March 31. Through April 3

TICKETS: $25 to $78

PHONE: 202/467-4600

WEB SITE: www.kennedy-center.org

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