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'Mister Roberts' Christens Kate Warner's Voyage at New Rep

Mister Roberts

By Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan

Directed by Kate Warner

Patrick Lynch, scenic design; Molly Trainer, costume design; Karen Perlow, lighting design; David Wilson, sound design; Amy Weissenstein, production stage manager; Emily Page, assistant stage manager

CAST (in alphabetical order): Ben Chase, Insigna; Owen Doyle, Doc; Paul D. Farwell, The Captain; Ed Hoopman, Dolan; Curt Klump, Stefanowski; Grant MacDermott, Lindstrom; Ross MacDonald, Chief Johnson, Reber, Shore Patrol Officer; Claire McClanahan, Lieutenant Ann Girard; Thomas Piper, Lieutenant (J.G.) Roberts; Jonathan Popp, Ensign Pulver; Tim Spears, Gerhart, M.P., Wiley

Performances through October 3 at New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts

Box Office 617-923-8487 or

Now hear this! Now hear this! Artistic Director Kate Warner marks her debut at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown with the 1948 Tony Award-winning play Mister Roberts, by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan. She brings the World War II story out of dry dock some sixty years later, believing that it has relevance today as the United States is involved in two foreign wars. Looking at the play through that lens gives it a sharper focus than observing it as mere entertainment and adds a layer of reality for a new generation audience. It will certainly be Warner's challenge to recruit the grandchildren of those old sailors to keep New Rep on course in turbulent economic times.

You couldn't ask for a better pedigree than that of Mister Roberts as it took home five Tony Awards, including the first ever Best Play, Best Author(s), Best Director (Logan), and Best Actor (Henry Fonda). The 1955 film was nominated for Best Picture, and Jack Lemmon won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his inimitable Ensign Pulver. Warner has conscripted a crew of seaworthy successors to portray the officers and enlisted men of the USS Reluctant, a cargo ship delivering supplies in the South Pacific a few weeks before V-E Day. The cohesiveness of the talented ensemble is the major strength of this production, bringing authenticity to their camaraderie as a band of brothers who suffer the heat, monotony, and frustration of their confinement onboard, even as they crave adventures of the flesh ashore.

Thomas Piper takes the lead as Doug Roberts and quietly assumes the leadership position of the company as well. It is difficult to find the line where respect for the lieutenant by his men ends and the admiration of his fellow actors for Piper begins, but strong emotions are telegraphed between them in several powerful scenes. Men being men, they are never open and direct in expressing their feelings, especially in a war setting several decades before it became okay for guys to be sensitive. More to their credit, these men show their love, hurt, and support nonverbally with nuance and body language. Jonathan Popp is endearing as tenderhearted tenderfoot Pulver and has some very Lemmon-like moments, although he brings his own interpretation to the part. His journey from wise guy hormonal slacker to reluctant second-in-command evolves naturally, and his final turnaround comes as a pleasant surprise.

What drives Roberts is a burning desire to be transferred to a destroyer so that he can see battle action. He writes a weekly letter to the brass requesting re-assignment, only to be shot down by his authoritarian captain. The two men continuously butt heads in a Mexican standoff as The Captain (Paul D. Farwell) requires Roberts' obedience and good will with the men in order to maintain any semblance of command, and the lieutenant needs his superior to sign off on the transfer. When they finally forge a deal to allow the crew to have long overdue liberty on a Polynesian island, Roberts finds that his personal longing must be sacrificed for the morale of his men. This turning point creates an internal crisis for him and Piper does a good job of showing the struggle and its resolution. In the early going, Farwell's broad portrayal is more cartoon than commandant, but he hits his stride in an in-your-face angry exchange with his defiant underling.

Timeless themes run through the play - the class clash between the bootstraps captain and the college boy lieutenant; the quiet, unheralded heroism of people who do their jobs, day in and day out, and make sacrifices for the sake of others; war is hell - and these aspects make Mister Roberts relevant for today's audience. However, there is something lacking in this staging that makes it less than compelling. Billed as a drama, it is most winning in its humorous scenes, although it is punctuated with some highly charged dramatic exchanges, too. Still, it has long stretches during which I found myself wishing for it to move on to the next escapade to liven things up. Perhaps the languid pacing is intentional to replicate life onboard the ship. If so, Warner succeeds brilliantly; if not, she needs to retool.

Owen Doyle is a steady presence as the ship's doctor. Doc administers aspirin for the imaginary ailments of the sailors who want to get out of work, and good advice and moonshine to his friends Roberts and Pulver. Ed Hoopman earnestly plays Dolan, the yeoman who types Roberts' weekly letters and thereby has a special interest in their author's success, or lack of it. Representing the staunch women of the military, Claire McClanahan's Lieutenant Anne Girard doesn't have much stage time, but she coyly spices things up before turning on her heel and showing the men that she's nobody's fool. Both Ross MacDonald and Tim Spears capably handle three roles with distinction. Their bunkmates Ben Chase, Curt Klump, and Grant MacDermott, round out the strong ensemble.

Patrick Lynch's erector set of open staircases, metal platforms, and portholes brings us into the ship's realm. The officers' quarters feel sufficiently cramped with a bunk bed, a small desk, and two footlockers. David Wilson opens the show with sounds of the sea, including the ship's engines and horns, and makes sure we hear all of the captain's announcements loud and clear. Ship's lighting by Karen Perlow and Molly Trainer's naval costumes complete the salty picture.

If I may exercise poetic license, perhaps there is a parallel between Doug Roberts and Kate Warner. He is searching for a more useful purpose for himself in the war and she is launching her career as the guiding artistic hand of the well-established New Repertory Theatre. They are both looked up to and respected as leaders by their crews and take that responsibility seriously. Roberts faces a narrow set of options to achieve his desires and be true to himself. That's where the parallel diverges. Warner came here from Atlanta with a vision that the stories in her inaugural season would elevate the heroes around us and remind us "that inspiration can be found where we least expect it." She definitely hits that target with Mister Roberts and now it's damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.



Photo credit: The cast of Mister Roberts by Andrew Brilliant



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From This Author Nancy Grossman