AMERICAN POLAR by John Alan Spoler; directed by Lloyd Rose; scenery by Russell Metheny; lighting by Greg Basdavanos; costumes by Liz Bass; with Stu Lerch, Carlos Brocas, Martin Goldsmith, Stephen Zazanis, Kevin Murray, Eric Zengota, Gary Alan Shelton, Ernie Meier, Mark Brutsche, Reed Harvey and T.G. Finkbinder.
At the New Playwrights' Theatre through Jan. 11.
The quest for the North Pole brought out the best and worst in the 19th-century American character. Robert Peary, generally hailed as the pole's discoverer, was a daring and vindictive monomaniac who hid his failures, exaggerated his successes, regarded his fellow explorers as bitter enemies and was notoriously sloppy about records and measurements. As a result, Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who first reached the South Pole in 1911 (two years after Peary's triumph), seems to have spoken for quite a few of his colleagues when he remarked that the only proof for Peary's claim was his word. Others have suggested that his word may not have been any too good.
There have been similar challenges down through the years to Richard E. Byrd's claim to have flown over the pole in 1926, and there is near-unanimity that at least one would-be polar discoverer -- Dr. Frederick A. Cook -- was an outright fraud. Clearly, there was much fakery and self-aggrandizement as well as courage and selflessness in the American pursuit of the pole, and those are the contradictions that have inspired "American Polar," the latest production of the New Playwrights' Theatre. Playwright John Alan Spoler (perhaps drawn to the subject by his compatible last name) has invented a fictitious Arctic expedition led by a Peary-like figure, Joshua Hardy, a munitions manufacturer determined to be the first man to get to the "Big Nail" (as the Eskimos referred to the obscure destination that seemed to matter so much to their white guests).
The obvious problem in dramatizing such a story is that the high points of polar exploration tend to happen on the move -- and how do you put a journey across the icecap on stage? With a revolving backdrop and a wind machine?
"American Polar" solves the problems by confining itself to a few days spent at an island base camp. We meet Hardy's cadre of young, college-educated trainees there in the spring of 1889, their rations and tempers running short as they await their leader's overdue return from further north. The team physician has just killed himself. Hardy's strict-minded second-in-command seems to be going slowly haywire. A third man has lost a few toes after plunging through the ice, and is worried about gangrene. A fourth man -- a congenitally gloomy Harvard type -- destroys a wind sensor in a fit of pessimistic fury. And two more members of the team want to abandon the camp rather than wait around for their leader.
Spoler delineates all these characters sharply and, except for a few overly broad touches, convincingly. And he knows how to put a plot together -- all too well, unfortunately. In his laudable desire to avoid a static story line, he has provided so many melodramatic happenings -- including a theft, a murder and a trial with Perry Mason-like revelations -- that his larger themes are finally snowed under.
Nevertheless, a number of nice moments linger. There is the pleasure of these ice-bound men when a relief mission brings them a crate of oranges; and there is the second-in-command's proud claim that "I've never lost a man yet," only to be reminded of the physician whom they have just buried.
Russell Metheny has designed a splendidly stark gray-white set for this attractive production, and the 11-man cast keeps the energy level high from start to finish. Carlos Brocas and Gary Alan Shelton are particularly good as a bemused Eskimo and a brash hunter. So "American Polar" is never boring, but it is never very stimulating either.