Thirty years later, Herman Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial" seems a terribly simplistic and contrived melodrama posing as a fervent, sincere and serious piece of theater. Still, once the preliminary creaks and groans have subsided and it gets under way, last night's revival at the uptown Circle in the Square begins to exert the familiar strength of its genre, the courtroom drama.
You will recall that the court-martial of an executive officer who took over the command of a minesweeper from his apparently unbalanced captain during a typhoon in World War II was a relatively short, but climactic, passage in Wouk's lengthy novel. Having built up the skipper, Lt. Com. Queeg, to monstrous proportions, the author winds up evoking sympathy for the man while admitting all his aberrations. He accomplishes this by having the insubordinate officer defended by a Jewish attorney, a naval officer chosen against his will by the prosecuting attorney, a higher-ranking naval officer.
Lt. Barney Greenwald, you see, respects the Navy and its career men, even a paranoid like Queeg, who are dedicated to protecting us from the forces of evil (in Greenwald's view, principally from the Nazis, for although the fictional U.S.S. Caine was plying the Pacific, V-day in Europe was still a few months off at the time of the trial). He respects them so much that he disapproves of his client, Lt. Maryk, even though he intends to have him acquitted, and loathes Maryk's disobedience, then chickened out himself, and has already finished half a book knocking the Navy and for which he's received a $1,000 advance.
So Wouk has it both ways, carrying off the trick with sufficient skill while we're in the courtroom, but going too far with Greenwald's drunken peroration during a victory party Maryk and his pals are having at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel following the acquittal.
What makes it work this time, aside from Wouk's shrewd, however obvious, use of his material, is a generally mettlesome cast in which Michael Moriarty, as Queeg, gives one of his finest, least mannered, performances in years. Unstable, mean-spirited and dishonest though he is shown to be, you actually feel sorry for him as he begins to come apart on the stand. Wouk has stacked the cards very neatly.
John Rubinstein is an interesting Barney Greenwald and, until that embarassing final speech of his, a convincing fellow. He's an appealing actor, and a forceful one. No better choice for the role of the gullible and ignorant Maryk could have been made than the hulking Jay O. Sanders. William Atherton is reasonably effective, though a bit too snide, as the prosecutor, horrified at the end of the trial, after watching Greenwald's shenanigans. There are other good contributions made by Stephen Joyce as the presiding Capt. Blakely, and by Stephen Joyce as the presiding Capt. Blakely, and by the wide variety of witnesses, ranging from Brad Sullivan's terse Capt. Southard to Jace Alexander's comic signalman, and including a pompous doctor (Leon B. Stevens) and a self-assured psychiatrist (Geoffrey Horne). It's a necessarily large cast, for the introduction of so many witnesses, all but two summoned by the prosecution, is calculated to revive our possibly flagging interest.
Arthur Sherman has staged the evening efficiently in the barest possible setting (some tables and chairs and a couple of doors for the participants to use for quick entrances and exits). The play (the production, by the way, originated at the Hartman Theater in Stamford, Conn.) shows its age, and the patchwork is all too clear. But it works, after its fashion.
The courtroom is to drama what car chases are to movies. Even the bad ones are tolerable, and the good ones irresistible. William Shakespeare must have realized this early on with The Merchant of Venice. He knew the theatrical value of the quality of justice.
Now one would not put Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial in the same league as Shakespeare. But it remains tingling theater, manipulative yet oddly satisfying.
At last night's new production at the Circle in the Square (uptown) with three big stars, William Atherton, Michael Moriarty and John Rubinstein, and a whole shipload of lustrous supporting players, came up very nicely indeed.
The thing about the play is its adroit use of courtroom protocol and pattern to find its structure, and its even neater use of the drama always inherent in the seeming immediacy of the courtroom interrogation, and, what one can only term, the courtroom aria.
The point-counterpoint of lawyers, their knavish tricks, their heroics, the sudden reversals of fortune, accompanied by pregnant pauses, scuttled looks and sharp intakes of breath, this all goes to make terrific popular theater.
And The Caine Mutiny is a particularly adroit example of the genre. For one thing it is a naval court-martial, and Wouk is able to inject naval law, lore and mores into the legal soup, and he also devised an unusual story.
It is fictional, by the way - of a destroyer caught in a typhoon in the Pacific during World War II, the Captain seemingly losing his head, and his Executive Officer assuming, under Navy Regulations, his Captain's command.
This is what Lt. Stephen Maryk did on the Caine. The ship survives but back home in San Francisco, Maryk naturally has to face Court Martial. His defense lawyer, a Naval airman finishing off sick leave, realizes immediately that the only way to get his client off is to destroy the character and credibility of the deposed Captain - the ball-fiddling Commander Queeg.
He must be made to look like Captain Bligh if this Jewish lawyer's particular Christian is not to be thrown to lions.
The prosecuting attorney produces psychological evidence, expert witnesses, trying to demonstrate Queeg's fitness to command. The defense, in effect skirts around this, and places Queeg himself on trial.
Strong stuff - particularly when you know from the outset that the young Navy airman defending Maryk, thinks that technically and morally he was guilty. But feels he must win. But does he?
The balance of victory swoops backward and forward like a ship in a storm-tossed ocean. And at the end, Wouk had a final - perhaps overly slick - surprise for us.
How actors love this kind of play. Moriarty's performance is a wonderful playing, strong on suavely hinted but hidden fears, right in the shadow of Bogart's unforgettable film portrayal.
Atherton is all righteous naval dignity as the prosecuting Counsel, and both these handsomely calculated performances are matched, and in some ways surpassed by Rubinstein in the play's most showy role - that of the Jewish lawyer, with a killer instinct and a guilty conscience.
Supporting these three are a galaxy of fine actors in the smaller roles, led by Jay O. Sanders, handsomely dumb as a befuddled ox, Stephen Joyce's ramrod Court Chairman, and such artful actors as J. Kenneth Campbell, Jonathan Hogan and Brad Sullivan.
I saw the production - or more or less this - a few months ago in Stamford, Conn. It was good then, but the director, Arthur Sherman, has clearly made it tighter, a bit more ship-shape. It fits well onto the Circle in the Square stage, even if the two lawyers have to do some fancy footwork to make sure everyone can get a look at their faces.
If you are hungering to see a revival of ''The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,'' then hop to the one that has arrived, by way of Stamford's Hartman Theater, at the Circle in the Square. Graced with crackling, intelligently conceived performances by John Rubinstein, Michael Moriarty and most of a large supporting cast, Arthur Sherman's staging gets every ounce of juice there is to be had from Herman Wouk's 1954 Broadway hit - and then some.
If you're not hungering to see this play - well, that's understandable, too. It's a matter of personal taste. ''The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,'' like most courtroom melodramas, proceeds on a dogged, straight path that can become wearing. Though Mr. Wouk's handling of the genre is extremely professional and sometimes even witty, he can't escape the static conventions that make a stage trial, for all the planted surprises, look like an open-and-shut affair. You know going into the theater that Act I will bring a parade of witnesses who must painstakingly lay out the exposition. You know, too, that Act II will bring the real conflict - the cracking of the key witness under the relentless badgering of the most saintly lawyer.
That witness in ''Caine Mutiny,'' as you may recall from Mr. Wouk's original novel or the Humphrey Bogart film, is Captain Queeg, the World War II commander who may or may not have gone berserk when his destroyer entered the center of a typhoon. If Captain Queeg did, in fact, go nuts, then Lieutenant Maryk, his executive officer and the trial's defendant, was justified in usurping the ship's command. But if Captain Queeg cannot be proven to have gone insane, then Lieutenant Maryk is guilty, as charged, of plotting a mutiny.
The famous Act II scene in which the defense lawyer, Lieut. Barney Greenwald, must try to unmask Queeg as a lunatic is superbly orchestrated by this production's stars. Mr. Rubinstein's lawyer - a bright, sensitive, restless man with little stomach for the cruel task before him - goes after Mr. Moriarty's Queeg with burning intellectual arrogance, not brute force. What could be a pro forma wrestling match becomes, with Mr. Rubinstein's shrewdly paced prodding, a tense psychological chess game that really keeps you guessing each move.
Mr. Moriarty, though looking a bit young to play a veteran officer, responds in kind. He crumbles under his tormentor's waspish pricks by showing us tiny, bloody fissures rather than gaping wounds. A smooth Southern good ole boy until this point, this Queeg unwinds so delicately that we don't even register that exact moment when he becomes a puddle on the courtroom floor. It's a performance of admirable subtlety from an actor who's tended to go overboard in recent years.
Nothing else in the play is so gripping as this climax, but that's no fault of the cast. All the Act I witnesses are first-rate: Jay O. Sanders as the disingenuous Maryk; J. Kenneth Campbell as Mr. Wouk's real villain, an aspiring novelist who condescends to his uniform; Jace Alexander as a comically frightened young signalman; Jonathan Hogan and Brad Sullivan as lesser Caine officers; and Leon B. Stevens and Geoffrey Horne as military psychiatrists who don't exactly further Freud's cause on the stand. Stephen Joyce exudes crisp, no-nonsense authority as the presiding judge, who taps his ring on his desk to build up tension. Only William Atherton, for the prosecution, falls short: Too unctuous in Act I, he seems to mimic Mr. Moriarty in Act II.
The real problems are in the script. There are just too many witnesses -do we really need two doctors, for instance? - and the result is a good half-hour of overlength. The attempts to give some of the characters a life beyond their roles in the trial are perfunctory: we never believe, as we're told, that the opposing lawyers were cronies at Georgetown Law School. Mr. Wouk also has a tendency to diffuse suspense by announcing exactly what he's going to do long before he does it. He signals in advance that Queeg will be undone once he starts to play with the metal marbles he keeps in his pocket; the opening scene tips off the supposedly shocking change-of-heart speech that Greenwald delivers in the play's coda.
Though fervently given by Mr. Rubinstein, that speech is perhaps the biggest stumbling block of all. Suddenly the lawyer who's unmasked Queeg as a martinet in court takes to defending his victim. Greenwald's argument - that only fascist American commanding officers can whip fascism overseas - seems questionable, if not simplistically jingoistic, in 1983. Whether one uses post-Vietnam historical hindsight to question this logic or not, however, the fact remains that a black-and-white melodrama is an infelicitous forum for opening such a serious, complex debate.
But perhaps no one like myself - whose eyes glaze over at the sight of jurors taking notes on legal pads - can render an unclouded, impartial judgment on ''The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.'' What I do recognize is that Mr. Rubinstein, Mr. Moriarty and company are just about the strongest possible advocates for Mr. Wouk's case.