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A Hyper-Masculine Production of Mister Roberts

A handful of sexually frustrated, boisterous men are isolated and have little access to fresh fruit. No, this isn’t a Rubin Residence Hall “floor party;” it’s the conceit of the Yeshiva College Drama Society’s newest production of Mister Roberts.

As the sun sets over the European Theater during World War Two, a cargo ship, the USS Reluctant, and its uniformed crew of underworked sailors, wait for further orders. The ship shuffles between “the islands of tedium and apathy with side trips to monotony.” Sitting on their unsexy and unglamorous transporter, affectionately known as “the bucket,” the men are plagued with destroyer-envy. Some dream of leaving their dinky vessel for the warships and carriers on the front lines. No character is as wrapped up in this fantasy as Mister Roberts.

The play’s eponymous male lead, Mister Roberts (Doni Mandel), is fixated on attaining transfer. He is constantly writing letters and pleading with the captain to arrange for a more fitting military position. However, as the vessel’s cargo officer and the only competent midshipmen on board, Lieutenant Roberts is the only bulwark against the captain’s tyranny and the crew’s stupidity. For obvious reasons, the Captain (Ze’ev Deutsch) doesn’t want to see Roberts go. “You got a job here,” the frenzied captain shrieks at his officer, “and you ain’t never gonna leave this ship.”

After months at sea with no respite or “Liberty” visits to shore, the crew becomes antsy. Despite docking at a far-flung Pacific Island, their cruel captain will not let the crew disembark. “A captain of a navy ship is the last monarch left in this world,” the captain reminds Mister Roberts. “But you’re killing them!” Roberts pleads with the captain after the crew takes to peering down binoculars at the bathing naval nurses on shore.

Mister Roberts eventually gets his way. The rowdy enlistees have their night of revelry, but Mister Roberts must pay for their deeds. Morale is up, and so is the captain’s unrefined anger.

The lives of the play’s characters are of course far tamer than the gritty, unfiltered lives of the military men. However, the production still manages to capture the raw, masculine nature of naval life. Indeed, the story revolves around virility. The men want to either fight, mate, or drink.

Two performances stand out amidst the sea of gruff masculinity. In his first ever performance, Zach Neuman managed to nail his performance as the simple sailor Gerhart. His syrupy Bostonian accent is so whimsical it seems plucked from a period film and so effortlessly delivered he seems far more experienced than his peers.

Now in his last semester, Tani Isaac has pulled off quite a remarkable show, managing sincerity and sentimentality through carefully controlled tonal modulation. Audience members will remember that Isaac already proved his capacity to raise his voice as third juror in Twelve Angry Men. He has now developed into an actor capable of highlighting emotion and projecting his voice without over-exaggerating, as he displays so charmingly in the final moments of the play.

In addition to these two remarkable performances, another aspect of the play is indisputably praiseworthy. The set, in all its static and moving parts, is sea-sickeningly realistic and riveting in detail. The men read WWII magazines. The paper used in the letters is period-matching dark brown loose-leaf. The boat has rubber fenders, boat ties, and aged ropes. The machine gun has a green magazine, chrome triggers, and ventilation holes drilled into the barrel. Like the rest of the performance, the set of steel and guns screams manliness.

Yet as the men revel and fight across the set, the playgoer realizes that there is a downside to pronounced machismo. The performance can easily slip away from a concentration on character to absorption with action. Fights, overzealous acting, pushing, yelling and general rough-housing saturate YCDS’s performance, deemphasizing emotional acuity and dramatic portrayals. Most of the lines are delivered with drill instructor intensity. Mister Roberts constantly seems on edge. Pulver is always wildly gesticulating. The Captain is always yelling.

This slip should come as no surprise. The last YCDS production, Twelve Angry Men skidded on the edge of becoming too loud, too physical and, well, too angry. Mister Roberts, however, might have taken the plunge. There seems to be little room for restraint. When the play requires balanced emotions, dejection or grief, for instance, the actors become almost farcical as they careen across the set parading emotional extremes.

The play is of course about military life. Roaring rants and foul-play are expected. Yet Mister Roberts has the built-in potential to dive deeper than the stereotypical fighting men it obviously portrays. Ensign Pulver (Binyamin Weinreich) is at first a shallow, sexually charged sailor conspiring to seduce a nurse through a homemade concoction resembling Scotch whisky. By the end of the play, however, his character matures substantially. Yet we can’t hear this development over the cacophonous production.

The play is also a comedy. It has hilarious gaffes, entertaining squabbles, and sidesplitting scenes of dramatic irony. On this level, the YCDS performance was effective, if not highly entertaining. However, YCDS aficionados might want to see more mastery in delivery and more nuance in the development of character throughout the production.