The misfit crew of the USS Reluctant, a doomed potted palm tree and the most debauched liberty in naval history are highlights of High Street Arts Center’s production of the 1948 comedy “Mister Roberts.”
Thomas Heggen’s hilarious and ultimately poignant play was drawn chiefly from real-life incidents experienced by Heggen on a cargo ship called the USS Virgo during World War II.
Cargo ships saw little action during the war, which inspired Heggen’s line that described the Reluctant as having sailed “from Tedium to Apathy and back again, with an occasional trip to Monotony.”
Heggen survived the war, but not by much. After turning his novel into a Tony Award-winning play starring Henry Fonda, Heggen experienced paralyzing writer’s block when he was expected to write a follow-up. He drowned in his bathtub in 1949 at the age of 30 and his death was ruled a probable suicide.
This production at High Street in Moorpark is guided by the able hands of John Tedrick, himself a veteran of 20 years in the Navy as a chief petty officer. In directing the play, Tedrick went to great lengths to replicate not only the look of the crewmen and officers of the Reluctant, but also the broad comedy and underlying darkness of the story. In doing so, Tedrick made exactly the right choices by casting three ideally suited actors to play the primary roles.
R. Shane Bingham is at his best in heroic, charismatic roles such as Doug Roberts, who desperately wishes a transfer to a battleship but is frustrated in his attempts by the ship’s unpopular captain. Bingham commands the stage with the casual sense of humor and sublimated melancholia that pervaded Fonda’s portrayal in the original play and the acclaimed 1955 film adaptation.
Heroes are not necessarily those who shoot down enemy planes or bravely lead men into battle. Some are like Roberts, who performs a valuable service while also commanding the respect of his men. Bingham perfectly captures not only Roberts’ frustration but his stifling personal turmoil when he makes a secret deal with the captain in exchange for liberty for the crew.
The play beautifully predicts Captain Morton’s personality long before he appears onstage. When he does, we already know him to be cantankerous, humorless and unsympathetic toward the crew, who’ve been suppressed by months of monotonous sea life without liberty at any of the ship’s tropical ports.
As the captain, character actor/ chameleon Dale Alpert is masterful, replicating James Cagney’s performance in the film without doing an imitation of him.
Phil Nemy plays Doc, the ship’s laconic medical officer, in a terrific nod toward William Powell’s immortal film performance. Patrick Rogers portrays the hapless Ensign Pulver, the goldbricking laundry and morale officer who is constantly concocting plans of shipboard mischief that all go unrealized.
Rogers takes advantage of his slight resemblance to the Three Stooges’ Curly Howard in providing additional goofiness to his character and does a fine job in the role. Bingham, Nemy and Rogers work beautifully together, especially in the scene where they chemically brew up a bottle of Scotch whisky.
The sailors ensemble works well as a unit, highlighted by Dakota Heer as Dolan, who has a great scene when he “kid-naps” an admiral’s goat during the crew’s drunken liberty spree and leads him back to the ship. Olivia Heulitt is effective as a nurse whom Pulver attempts to seduce.
Heggen’s brilliant script could be even more effective if the cast paced the dialogue more judiciously. The show runs a brisk two hours and ten minutes, so greater deliberation between lines would enhance the humor without risking excessive running time.
“Mister Roberts” runs through May 6 at 45 E. High Street, Moorpark. Call (805) 529-8700 or go to HighStreetArtsCenter.com.