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
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
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
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.