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The Washington Post

A Real Morale Booster
'Mister Roberts' Still Fit for Duty

By Tricia Olszewski
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 8, 2004; Page C09


Pulver, Roberts, Doc and the Captain spent three award-winning years on Broadway, but it was Hollywood that made these characters household names. "Mister Roberts," the 1948 play that was turned into a 1955 movie starring Jack Lemmon, Henry Fonda, William Powell and James Cagney, is now being presented by the American Century Theater -- a seemingly odd choice for a company dedicated to neglected works. But that's what star power will do, according to "Mister Roberts" director (and American Century artistic director) Jack Marshall: The beloved celluloid version has so eclipsed the drama, he says, that the work is now rarely staged.

"Mister Roberts" takes place on a cargo ship, the USS Reluctant, in the Pacific during World War II. Doug Roberts (Timothy Andres Pabon), the crew's cargo officer, is feeling bored and useless. Every week he writes a letter requesting transfer to a fighting ship, and every week the insufferable Captain (David Jourdan) turns him down. Despite the respect of his men and gentle suggestions from his friend Doc (John C. Bailey) that perhaps his contribution on the "bucket" is as crucial to the war effort as combat, Roberts won't rest until he changes his lot.

The script, by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan, is based on Heggen's novel of the same name, which he shaped from stories he had written about his own miserable experience on a wartime cargo ship. Often funny but with an undercurrent of bitterness and tragedy, "Mister Roberts" is full of characters who are likable even when they're not being respectable, and its power struggles and lessons of self-worth have kept the decades-old work relevant.

Though the personal agendas of the Captain, Ensign Pulver (John Tweel) and, of course, Lt. Roberts drive the plot, camaraderie is integral to a successful telling of the story, and the 15 members of this production's cast play and fight as if they have indeed been stuck together on a ship for months.

There's not a weakness in the bunch: Among the main players, Pabon makes a charismatic Roberts, a role that Fonda played both on Broadway and on film; Tweel carries on Lemmon's goofiness as the lazy, womanizing Pulver; Jourdan's Captain has a simultaneous pomposity and silliness reminiscent of William Shatner, and Bailey, who portrayed the loud-mouthed disembodied head in American Century's recent "The Robber Bridegroom," underplays all his lines to achieve the deadpan of a medical professional who checks his men with a tossed-off "Anybody got a fractured skull?" Even among the crew's bit parts, actors such as Shane Wallis (also the production's fight choreographer), Steve Ferry and Jake Call cut vivid characters.

A simple, reversible set from Marc A. Wright serves alternately as the ship's deck, the captain's cabin, and Roberts's and Pulver's quarters, and leaves plenty of room for the many scenes that must accommodate the entire cast.

Marshall's blocking makes full use of the Gunston Theater 2 stage, keeping the audience's eyes engaged when the majority of the actors are on the floor and sometimes tickling the ears with a grumbling chorus that comes from crew quarters hinted at behind the curtain. A memorable line from "Mister Roberts" may claim that the crew merely travels "from tedium to apathy and back again, with a side trip to monotony," but this production ensures that the audience won't feel the same way.

Mister Roberts, by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan. Directed by Jack Marshall. Set and lights, Marc A. Wright; costumes, Beverley Nicholson Benda; sound, David Meyer. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through Jan. 31 at Gunston Theater 2, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Call 703-553-8782 or visit www.americancentury.org.

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