For six weeks only, live at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, it's the battle of the jutting jaws.
Will the challenger, Ben Cross, dethrone the champ, Charlton Heston?
Can an old established Hollywood chin -- firm and square and imposingly famous -- hold its own against a new British chin -- longer, more angular perhaps, but raring for a showdown?
Forget about acting. We're talking real conflict here. No poses barred. Every mandible for itself.
The occasion for this chiseled face-off is a revival of Herman Wouk's 1954 courtroom drama, "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial," a play that has seen better days. Still, Cross and Heston could have done worse. If you're going to lead with the chin, this is the vehicle you pick. Its confrontations and revelations are entirely too calculated to command much belief. But they sure let an actor show off his profile.
The play, set in 1945, consists of the proceedings against one Lt. Steven Maryk (John Corey), who stands accused of forcibly relieving Captain Queeg of the command of the USS Caine during a typhoon in the Pacific some three months earlier. Heston is Queeg, a man who may or may not be bonkers, but is clearly a martinet, beloved of no one. Cross is the Jewish attorney engaged against his will to defend Maryk. The only way to win the case, he realizes reluctantly, is to turn the focus on Queeg, dredge up his past, goad him until he breaks down in front of judge and jury.
Heston makes a perfunctory appearance in Act 1, but in Act 2 he gets his big moment on the stand. It calls for him to go from controlled aloofness to jibbering paranoia, a transition he seasons with vintage ham. It's one of those highly illustrative performances that scream, "Hey, Ma, I'm acting!" with every turn of the head. The best actors make acting look easy. Heston succeeds in making it look hard.
Cross, on the other hand, spends a lot of time grilling the various witnesses. It can be a thankless job, but in a courtroom drama, someone's got to come up with the questions. The role does permit him alternately to thrust his features aggressively at those he thinks are pussyfooting with the truth and to gaze out into the audience in dense concentration, his face a package of frozen vegetables. In a coda to the play, he finally wrestles with his conscience: Did he play dirty pool in the courtroom? But the scene, a drunken party in a hotel banquet room, is so sloppily staged that the soul-searching doesn't have much impact.
What Wouk's dramaturgy ultimately brings to mind is the childhood game of connect the dots. You remember -- pencil in hand, you drew a line from A up to B, then over to C. By the time you reached Z, you had a picture. Wouk puts an audience through a similar process, moving it laboriously from witness to witness, each with his mandatory nugget of information to reveal to the court. The witnesses, summarily drawn, range from a hick signalman (Karl Wiedergott), who stammers stupidly, to an intellectually smug lieutenant (William Wright), who pens novels in his spare time. There is also the usual contingent of boobish psychiatrists (Joe George and Vincent Marzello). In an attempt to get blood from these stick figures, the cast members milk them shamelessly.
Even Queeg, a character presumably of some complexity, seems to have been artificially composed. He's an unfused collection of tics and neuroses. Early on, we are told that when his nerves start to snap, he takes a pair of steel balls out of his pocket and rattles them in his hand. Sure enough, as the defense attorney bears down on him, Heston reaches into his pocket for the steel balls and begins to jiggle them. Everything in "Caine Mutiny" is similarly telegraphed. Western Union should get a consulting credit.
Doubling as director, Heston has staged the play ploddingly in a polished wood courtroom set by Saul Radomsky that is as scrupulously realistic as it is untheatrical. This is the General Court-Martial Room of the 12th Naval District on Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay. If you doubt it, Heston prefaces each act with the cries of the sea gulls outside. The birds fall conveniently silent, once the actors begin to talk, and are not heard again until the act ends -- thereby reactivating a time-honored theatrical tradition: When all else fails, bring on the gulls.
The courtroom melodrama, never the highest form of drama to begin with, has long since been appropriated by television, which has driven it into the ground. About all "The Caine Muntiny" has to offer now are those two stars, thrusting and parrying with their handsome jaws. Some spectators may choose to view their efforts as electric. It struck me that they were both auditioning for Mount Rushmore.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, by Herman Wouk. Directed by Charlton Heston. Set, Saul Radomsky; lighting, Martin Aronstein. With Charlton Heston, Ben Cross, Stephen Macht, Joe George, Frank Aletter, Michael Thoma, William Wright, Robert Rockwell, Vincent Marzello, Karl Wiedergott, John Corey. At the Eisenhower Theater through July 5.