note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Sheila Barth
When young author Thomas Heggen wrote his novel, “Mr. Roberts,” in 1946, he couldn’t have guessed his story about an officer aboard a cargo vessel during World War II, who was pining away with ennui and eager to get into battle before the war ended, could create the stir it did. By teaming up with author Joshua Logan, the book was adapted for the stage, was on Broadway from 1948 to 1951, winning a Tony Award in 1948, and was a smash movie in 1955 with an all-star cast - Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, Jack Lemmon, Ward Bond, Betsy Palmer and others - that drew fans internationally. Unfortunately, Heggen died in 1949 at age 31.
New Rep’s new artistic director, Kate Warner, decided with today’s wartime climate, there couldn’t be a better time or vehicle to kick off the theater’s new season. She’s right. The talented cast and crew have restored “Mr. Roberts” to its original fame, but with their own charm. Led by Thomas Piper in the starring role, with Boston veteran actor Paul D. Farwell as the grouchy, ignorant, crass captain - from Boston, no less - also Owen Doyle, another Boston area favorite portraying the ship’s benevolent Doc, and talented Boston actor Jonathan Popp as eager Ensign Pulver, are all fantastic. Warner has worked well with the entire cast to create a close military unit with 167 men that has been confined to their mundane chores aboard their cargo ship for 19 months, in a peaceful area of the South Pacific in 1945, without a liberty, or shore leave. They joke around, exchanging banter and quips, get feisty, contrive practical jokes, make Scotch and whiskey out of medical supplies, and are voyeurs, eyeing through binoculars some newly-arrived female nurses as the women take showers in a hospital on shore.
There’s also good guy vs. bad officer here, with Lt. JG Doug Roberts sparring with the Captain to relax some stringent rules, which Roberts deems unnecessary, such as making the sailors wear their shirts in sweltering heat. Handsome Thomas Piper as Roberts has lots of spit ‘n‘ polish, dash and dignity here. In his skirmishes with the Captain, (well played by Paul D. Farwell), and his exchanges with Doc, Ensign Pulver and the crew, Piper has a gleam in his eye, yet a commanding stride. He wants desperately to be transferred to a combat destroyer and fears the war will end before he can lead the battleship. His faithful crew wants to help Roberts achieve his goal.
Roberts intercedes, striking a secret deal with the Captain to get his men an onshore leave, but surrenders his dream, reduced to subservience.
In the meantime, the sailors’ shenanigans during liberty are outrageous, hysterical, ending a bittersweet, heart-rending conclusion.
Crewmates Ben Chase, Ed Hoopman, Curt Klump, Grant MacDermott, Ross MacDonald, Tim Spears, and sole actress Claire McClanahon, provide individual charisma.
Patrick Lynch’s set, a four-tiered WW II cargo vessel, complete with the ship’s faulty public address system, scratchy radio, clanky metal steps, ship’s whistle et al, provided by sound designer David Wilson; Molly Trainer’s authentic looking naval and army costumes; and a surprise appearance in Act II by adorable 4-month-old Nubian goat Cody, are great.
The theater invites all active servicemen and women to share stories and photos of people they know who showed bravery, honor and grace in challenging times, to be displayed on the theater’s blog, Backstage@NewRep. E-mail email@example.com or send to New Repertory Theatre, Tell Us Your Story Campaign, 200 Dexter Ave., Watertown, MA 02472. Also, veterans who attend the play dressed in uniform receive two tickets for the price of one, by calling the Box Office.
BOX INFO:Two-act play written by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan, directed by New Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Kate Warner, appearing through October 3, Wednesday, September 30, Thursday, October 1, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, October 2, Saturday, October 3, at 8 p.m.; also Saturday at 3:30 p.m., at New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Charles Mosesian Theater, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown.Tickets, $35-$54; seniors, $7 discount off full price; student rush, $13. Call 617-923-8487 or visit www.newrep.org.