"THE CAINE Mutiny Court Martial" could also be called "Battle of the Screen Idols," featuring a face-off between director/star Charlton Heston and Ben Cross, who head the jut-jawed cast. At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, this revival of the 1954 courtroom drama, adapted from Herman Wouk's Pulitzer-winning novel, is a shipshape, conservative production of a creaky but still serviceable dramatic vessel.
In a courtroom on the San Francisco Bay, Lt. Stephen Maryk is being tried for relieving Lt. Cmdr. Philip Francis Queeg of his command of the U.S.S. Caine without authorization when the ship was threatened by a typhoon.
The slick prosecuting attorney, Lt. Cmdr. John Challee, thinks he has an open-and-shut case against Maryk based on the testimony of psychiatrists in support of Queeg. But then Maryk's defense attorney, Lt. Barney Greenwald, shifts the emphasis of the trial, tenaciously chipping away at Queeg's tenuous hold on reality.
Greenwald, who knows there's more than meets the eye about this "mutiny," resents his assignment, and in a postscript scene at a cocktail party, he serves as Wouk's mouthpiece for a jingoistic defense of the rigid military system.
Heston marshals "Mutiny" with static and stolid direction, heavy on the dated "man's man" acting styles. Though his acting has a mechanistic feel, Heston is affecting in the role of Queeg, and is not afraid to appear foolish and weak, as the character is goaded from professional affability to paranoia.
Shifting evasively and twitching his eyes in that carved-in-stone face, Heston succeeds in giving the impression of a rigid man undergoing a breakdown (as written by Wouk, the scene is psychologically naive and dramatically obvious), but overdoes it once he gets to the breaking point.
As Greenwald, Cross, who sports Cinemascope cheekbones you could land a jetfighter on, dominates the proceedings with strong, natural acting, and has tinted his British-trained voice with a plausible Brooklyn accent. Cross makes visible Greenwald's shrewdness, as well as his fatigue and distaste for what he has to do.
As Challee, Greenwald's opponent, Stephen Macht goes overboard with a melodramatic, mustache-twirling performance that all but invites hisses. There is solid work from John Corey as Maryk; William Wright as Lt. Thomas Keefer, a stuffed-shirt writer; and from Frank Aletter and Joe George who have funny bits as military psychiatrists bedeviled by the Cross-examination.