Who said things couldn't get worse? Rounding out a pretty dismal Broadway week, the first really active one of the season so far, along came "Almost an Eagle" last night at the Longacre to set a new low, possibly even a landmark low. Calling it this season's "Wally's Cafe" would constitute a slur on that 1981 bomb.
James Whitmore, not playing Will Rogers or Harry Truman this time but very possibly a combination of the two, is portraying a small-town Iowa scoutmaster, a one-time Marine sergeant who prefers to be called "Colonel." His troop, which has been provided a meeting place in the cluttered basement of a saloon, is down to four as he tries to shape it up for the following day's Memorial Day march to the cemetery. The second act shows the bedraggled group after returning from the event, for which 20 townspeople, all suspected of being related to members of the town band, turned out.
In between, the playwright, an Iowan named Michael Kimberley making his Broadway debut, has the boys march up and down, take part in a tenderfoot ceremony for a recruit and quarrel while Whitmore barks out commands, lapses into sentimental recollections of the past, attacks one of the scouts (actually, all but the youngest must be retarded, for they appear to be in their 20s) when he recalls that the lad's father, a successful competitor in the grain supply business and one of the richest men in town, quit the Scouts just three merit badges short of becoming an Eagle Scout. The stirring finish finds Whitmore, who carts around a Thermos of orange juice laced with vodka, resigning after 30 years, then admitting he has been canned by his rich former charge. Why, I can't say, any more than I can explain anything else about this senseless affair, including how it ever got here in the first place. For the record, nine producers are listed, and it's likely they were all sucking on Thermos bottles themselves when the script was first read to them.
The grizzled Whitmore, shuffling about in that rolling gait of his, opens his eyes in wide, stern stares, crinkles them up in benign moments, exhorts, teases, lambasts - in short, digs into his whole bag of actor's tricks, but to no avail. Even the air of sincerity we normally associate with him is befouled by this inexplicable, shoddy piece of writing. Brief as his play is, Kimberley has difficulty filling the time. The four scouts are assorted types who might have been rejected as too amateurishly actorish for the "Our Gang" comedies of old.
The program notes that "Almost an Eagle" was "developed by the American Stage Festival," an outfit unknown to me but one obviously with a long, hard row to hoe.
In this winter of our discontent we have seen on Broadway a surprising number of plays that are all but inexplicable. The plays are not puzzling in themselves - their secrets are always too easily apprehended - but only puzzling in their placement.
What are such plays doing on Broadway? Who put the money up for them? Why? How?
Such a play opened at the Longacre Theater last night. It is called Almost an Eagle, it stars an embattled and grizzled James Whitmore, and concerns the declining days of a Scout troop in a tiny town in Iowa.
Now the playwright, Michael Kimberley, is only 33 years old - still comparatively young for that tricky profession - and he is far from being untalented. The play has a certain character, a kind of winsome, rustic charm and an old-fashioned folksiness, that are not to be disputed, denied or despised.
Yet does it add up to a total theatrical statement worthy of a Broadway launching? In my opinion: No. It is sentimental, anecdotal and lacking both weight of truth and depth of character. It is a cartoon tricked out into a painting.
The play is basically concerned with Scout Troop 146 from Table Rock, Iowa (pop. 732), its preparations for Memorial Day, and the subsequently horrific happenings at that ceremony, where even the flag is dropped by the four ill-assorted Scouts which is all the troop can muster.
Yet this is, in fact, the play's backdrop, which is intended as a character study of the ex-Marine sergeant - known as "The Colonel" - who has run the troop since the end of World War II.
The Colonel's alcoholism is seemingly the small talk of the small town, and as the play opens, unbeknownst to him, he is to be asked to relinquish his somewhat shaky command.
Curiously, despite his constant tippling from a thermos flask, the blustering old leatherneck does not really seem a drunk, and his civic degradation is only hinted at once. He seems incompentent by nature rather than by pickling.
In any event his feelings for flag, country and Scouting are honest enough, as is his evident affection for his tatterdemalion band of youth, as he tries to incite them to be prepared, think clean and do good turns.
The Colonel's fall is made the more poignant by being encompassed by a former protege, a young man who was once "almost an Eagle Scout" but preferred to watch an Elvis Presley concert on the day of his test, is now the city's richest inhabitant, the Colonel's overweening business competitor, and finally the father of the most recalcitrant of the Colonel's final quartet of Scouts.
Baden-Powell might have been amused and touched by this mini-tragi-comedy set in a cobweb-festooned basement full of sut, memories and debris. Despite a few decent dramatic exchanges and encounters, most people will probably be less tolerant of this fall of a sparrow.
What there is of the play is well-enough done. Karl Eigsti has produced an authentically shabby and cavernous setting, bric-a-bracked with smart detail, and the director Jacques Levy has drilled his miniature Scout troop into decently replicated TV-style performances.
But the gusto of the evening is provided by Whitmore's fine refusal to go quietly into the night. With his face of craggy putty, emphasized by its burning-bushy eyebrows and grizzled-bear hair, Whitmore looms over his belted beer belly as a formidable presence. But not, sadly, formidable enough to sustain a play that isn't there and never was.
There is a daring laziness to the writing in Michael Kimberley's ''Almost an Eagle,'' the turkey that roosted at the Longacre last night. At the end of Act I, the audience is treated to the numbing and seemingly endless spectacle of watching four teen-age Boy Scouts do quasi-military maneuvers in circles to the rhythmic sound of boot-camp chants. Act II ends exactly the same way - albeit with the minor variation that martial music accompanies the chanting.
What this means is that the author successfully evades the difficulty of constructing an ending - of even composing a curtain line - for either act. He just decides when he wants the Scouts finally to march off toward the wings, and then the curtain can fall. The audience, unfortunately, doesn't get away so lightly. After taking in all that aimless parading and shouting (''sound off - three, four!''), we're left with a whopping headache.
About the best thing to be said about ''Almost an Eagle'' is that it is briefer than any other play to open this week. Shorn of its marching and other padding, it would weigh in at about three feathers. One suspects that its arrival on Broadway, in a reasonably elaborate production directed by the estimable Jacques Levy, is a conspiracy hatched by the Campfire Girls.
The setting is a garbage-strewn beer-hall basement in the farm town of Table Rock, Iowa. The Scouts belong to a dwindling troop - or is it pack? I could never get that straight - run by a curmudgeonly scoutmaster known as the Colonel. The Colonel, played by James Whitmore, is a World War II veteran equally devoted to the old verities and the vodka he sips from a thermos. After 30 years of shepherding eager young lads through the rituals of merit badges, he may be on his way to that great campsite in the sky.
But not before he enacts one last valiant gesture: he will lead his Scouts to the local graveyard in a Memorial Day flag-bearing ritual intended to knock Table Rock's socks off. In Act I, we and the boys get to hear an incredibly elaborate description of the Colonel's plan, complete with map, and it will surely be decipherable to anyone who has ever studied for a year or two at West Point. Memorial Day itself occurs during intermission, thus allowing Act II to be given over to lengthy descriptions of how the Colonel's plan fared when actually executed. While you may well feel that nothing happens in ''Almost an Eagle,'' that is not the case. It's just that nothing happens on stage.
In addition to uniforms, Mr. Kimberley also supplies most of his characters with personal crises that must be resolved before the final long march begins. The author seems to be attempting a statement about the homely domestic tragedies of small-town American life, but his writing never rises to the level of Grace Metalious, let alone Sherwood Anderson. ''Almost an Eagle'' is also, I guess, an anthem to old-time patriotism, but the lame gags about the boys' adolescent sexuality and alimentary difficulties always come ahead of duty.
The high point of Mr. Levy's staging is a tableau in which the boys simulate the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. Mr. Whitmore, who these days increasingly looks like a caricature of Norman Mailer (but who doesn't act as well), contributes his gruff, irascible Teddy Roosevelt shtick, giving his jaw muscles a particularly heavy workout. While his scoutmaster is never pathetic or decrepit enough to move us, he is still an old softie inside. For his last exit, he blubbers out ''I love you, boys!'' while the Scouts stand sobbing in their ''final formation.''
As for the young men in the cast, it can be said without equivocation that each and every one of them could have a brilliant career in Scouting.