Diplomatic Fates: Khrushchev and Kennedy bring the world to the brink.
Diplomatic Fates: Khrushchev and Kennedy bring the world to the brink.

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Missiles and Russkies and subs—oh, my: The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 gets a thorough going-over in The Titans, whose title presumably refers to John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, the world-bestriding men who led their nations to the brink and back in the autumn of that year, and the various attendant solons who shoved or pulled them in one direction or another. How thorough a going-over you’re in the mood for I dunno, so let’s just say your mileage will vary. Robert McElwaine’s history-at-a-clip drama wants to be a tale of pressurized politics, inter- and intragovernmental maneuvering, mad military saber-rattling, and cards-to-the-vest guessing games among the diplomats and the generals, the Wise Men and the heads of state—the latter two constantly communicating earnest assurances via back channels, then parsing each other’s public utterances, looking for grains of what’s-he-really-­thinking wheat among the chaff of words written for public consumption. The play intends, as well, to be both a true-to-the-record tick-tock—with chronologies and dialogue drawn from a wealth of archival sources on what was perhaps modern history’s most perilous moment—and a sympathetic portrait of two men who, starting from what seem in this portrayal like perfectly reasonable positions, painted themselves posture by belligerent public posture into a terrifyingly dark corner. Alas, the tick-tock and real-life drama overwhelm the humans caught up in them, and the sheer abundance of what’s known about how it all went down means McElwaine is forced to abbreviate. And so his characters telegraph puzzled thoughts, tortured moods, agonized decisions, and outraged impulses alike in sequences that come to seem too shorthand, dialogue that comes to seem too canned (however real it may have been), and increments that come to seem too many. A more fluid staging might have helped the scenes flow along more swiftly, and AnnMarie Castrigno’s stodgy lighting design (motto: No Scene Too Short to Be Framed by a Pair of Blackouts) doesn’t help. But mostly, The Titans feels—like the incident it documents—like a case of a reasonable set of impulses gone awry.