Zeljko Ivanek and David Schwimmer in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial(Photo © Scott Landis)
Zeljko Ivanek and David Schwimmer in
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial
(Photo © Scott Landis)
Herman Wouk's novel The Caine Mutiny, about an imagined incident during the World War II Pacific campaign, was published by Doubleday in 1951. It won the Pulitzer Prize and remained at the top of the bestseller charts for over two years. In 1953, Wouk adapted a section of the slightly autobiographical work for the stage as a military courtroom drama. (Wouk had served on a destroyer minesweeper and sold his fist novel while doing so, which is also the case with one of his characters.) Directed by Charles Laughton and starring Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan, the play opened in January 1954 and closed almost exactly a year later.

I mention these facts because, in looking at the 2006 revival of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, an odd but pertinent thought occurred to me. I realized that when those 1954-55 ticket buyers arrived at the theater -- the same one, now renamed the Gerald Schoenfeld, where the revival has docked -- they came with their heads full of the novel. They were the readers who had turned it into a phenomenon, with 425,000 copies sold in the first two years after its publication. In 2006, however, it's likely that only a small percentage of attendees have read the book, and probably not recently. The reasons for Lt. Stephen Maryk (Joe Sikora in the current production) relieving Lt. Com. Philip Francis Queeg (Zeljko Ivanek) of command of the U.S.S. Caine during a typhoon and therefore finding himself on trial for mutiny aren't familiar to most patrons; nor do they know the background of defense attorney Lt. Barney Greenwald (David Schwimmer), the significance of Queeg's hunt for shipboard strawberry thieves, or why the martinet officer came to be called "Old Yellowstain" behind his back.

For this reason, many of those who attend the current revival may find that Wouk's play feels sketchy in that, for the most part, it presents just the facts of the case. Yes, the author does a certain amount of filling in, as if carefully stuffing pimientos into olives for placement on a buffet table. Still, the impression is that we're in a courtroom where the jury is kept from seeing or hearing evidence that the judge deems immaterial but that would add spice to the proceedings. Then, at the end of his drama, Wouk hurls at us an away-from-court coup de théâtre that has not been properly set up. It's as powerful as a torpedo hitting a destroyer broadside, but whence did it come?

Yet, as directed with slick force by Jerry Zaks on a bare minimum John Lee Beatty set and costumed by William Ivey Long on an easy just-uniforms day, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial isn't without its positive effects at a time when audience members can supply current references of their own: soldiers questioning or not questioning superiors' orders at Abu Ghraib, say, or Ken Lay foisting off on underlings every iota of blame for the Enron collapse. Courtroom dramas are and always have been something of a stunt, and stunts please crowds. The play's core question about who is the victim here, and the larger issue of the proper circumstances in which to countermand authority, are magnetic. Then there's the parade of officers and enlisted men of all ranks and stripes, a cornucopia of highly actable characters.

David Schwimmer makes an entirely reputable Broadway bow, shucking off Ross Geller of Friends as if doffing a sweat shirt after a long run. He still seems to be getting his sea legs -- or, rather, his stage legs -- but his Barney Greenwald is serious and skeptical as demanded. (Director Zaks is smart to have Schwimmer alone on stage when the curtain goes up, as if posing for a portrait, so the actor's fans can get their applause out of the way quickly.) Tim Daly, another TV series vet, is trim and fit in the relatively thankless role of prosecuting attorney Lt. Com. John Challee. When the character's anger mounts, like distant flares coming closer, he get his chance to score as well. Stepping up to the witness box, Joe Sikora is fine as Maryk. Also offering sharply articulated vignettes are Tom Nelis, Brian Reddy, Paul David Story, Ben Fox, Murphy Guyer, and Geoffrey Nauffts as the slippery budding novelist Lt. Thomas Keefer.

Of course, the crucial role here is that of Captain Queeg. Zeljko Ivanek sticks in his thumb and pulls out the plum, presenting a cocky top dog during the Captain's first testimony and coming apart at the well-tailored seams during his second appearance, when the man starts rolling metal balls in his hands to calm his nerves. The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is nothing without a superlative Queeg, and this production has one in Ivanek.