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'Roberts' rendition is restless

May 01, 2003

Tom Titus

The journey "from tedium to apathy and back again" has been

undertaken countless times since Henry Fonda first wrangled cargo

aboard the USS Reluctant shortly after World War II, and his title

character, "Mr. Roberts," has done more for the military image than

any number of recruiting posters.

The Thomas Heggen/Joshua Logan dramatic comedy probably is the

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most familiar of military-themed plays, and also the most rewarding,

which explains its periodic revival on the stages of local theaters.

The latest producing entity to tackle "Mr. Roberts" is the Huntington

Beach Playhouse, where this venerable -- and, in its own way,

inspirational -- play is enjoying a rousing revival.

Director Gigi Fusco Meese has injected this seagoing saga with a

healthy dose of pugnacious restlessness, balanced by a full

complement of robust comedy, most of it surrounding the antics of the

lecherous Ensign Pulver. This is the play's showiest role (it won an

Oscar for Jack Lemmon a half-century ago) and it can commandeer a

production in the proper hands.

This, essentially, is what transpires on the Huntington Beach

stage. Although Fred Griffith renders a strong, if restrained and

over-accelerated, performance in the title role, it is Shaun

McNamara's wildly enthusiastic Pulver that audiences will be talking

about on their way out of the theater.

Griffith offers warmth, authority but little variation in his

rapidly paced delivery. McNamara dangerously skirts the opposite

pitfall, egregiously milking his lines and firing off enough sight

gags that playgoers will be forgiven for wondering just how the

playhouse ever got Jim Carrey? McNamara resembles the movie comic

both physically and in his crowd-pleasing antics.

Tom Fitzgerald as the despotic captain firmly captures his

character's up-from-the-ranks persona and fear-inducing presence,

reaching his peak in his office face-off with Roberts over the issue

of liberty for the crew. Skip Blas underplays skillfully as the

ship's sage medical officer.

The crew members function as a well-drilled, highly diversified

unit. Scott Conrad's Insigna and John MacDonald's Mannion are the

most memorable, along with Brett Kurtz's more subdued Dolan, but all

deliver with exuberance, verve and machismo. Robert Purcell offers a

more knowing, relaxed approach as the ship's veteran chief petty

officer.

One of the show's highlights is the injection of Lori White into

the mixture as an Army nurse brought aboard by Pulver with designs of

a cabin conquest. White excels in her brief stage time as she puts

both the ensign and the peeping-Tom crewmen in their places.

The ship's exterior and interior, smoothly executed in the play's

several transitions, are nicely designed by Vincent Roca, who with

Andrew Otero also serves as scenic artist. Military costumes created

by Dawn Conant, Pattie Wiebe and Bettie Muellenberg exude

authenticity.

There are few period-specific plays that hold up quite so well as

"Mister Roberts," and few comedies which offer such a powerful impact

in their climax. The Huntington Beach Playhouse has captured both

elements in a highly enjoyable production.

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