There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
War is several kinds of hell, and in Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan’s Mister Roberts, it is the hell of boredom. On a supply ship in the spring of 1945, a crew that hasn’t had liberty leave in 14 months is letting off steam the only way it can, by picking fights over nothing. The only glue holding the sailors together is their executive officer, Lt. j.g. Roberts (Michael Dempsey), the brave and wise citizen-soldier we all like to think we would be. His sidekick and comic relief is sophomoric braggart Ensign Pulver (Hunter Foster), the cowardly lazybones we fear we really would be. And watching over everything is the ship’s doctor (Stephen Kunken), the old salt who’s seen it all. (Remake, Morgan Freeman?) Roberts wants only one thing: to get transferred to a combat ship. In this, he is thwarted by the ship’s petty, ambitious captain (Frank Deal), who is obsessed both with getting promoted even further above the college-educated draftees he detests and with tending a palm tree, awarded for the ship’s excellence in carrying out its supply duties. Roberts, so idealistically played by Dempsey that he often seems to be addressing himself to the distance, ultimately makes his deal with the devil to get the crew the shore leave it desperately needs. The Kennedy Center’s lavish ship design enables full realization of some of the Tony Award–winning play’s humor. A bunch of drunken sailors are lifted by crane and dumped on deck in a cargo net, and a Lucyesque laundry mishap gets genuine laughs. The cast is fine, Foster being an especially effective weasel, and Robert Longbottom ably directs the large crew through many scenes of organized mayhem. What the play never really delivers is Roberts’ motivation—why he so desperately wants to get into the shooting war. At one point, he tells the captain, “You’re what I got in the Navy to fight against.” Really? Against working-class bullies who have been promoted beyond their abilities? The Doc suggests that Roberts may be serving the war effort in the most valuable way possible by moving supplies. But despite Roberts’ contempt for the captain’s obsession with symbols of success, the possibility remains that he, too, craves glory, which he will never get in his current assignment. The rest of the soldiers are so lecherous, violent, and juvenile that whenever there are a bunch of them onstage, you expect them to bust into “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.” What Mister Roberts does deliver is Good War nostalgia: Dubya Dubya Two gave us the real villains, real objectives, and real victory that Dubya’s war has not.