- The Titans
- by Robert McElwaine
- Directed by Jack Marshall
- Produced by The American Century Theater
- Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Realizing we are eavesdropping on authentic conversations from the Oval Office and the Kremlin in The Titans keeps you on the brink of your seat. History is told by the winners. But who lives to tell it after a thermonuclear war?
In October 1962, John F. Kennedy (Jon Townson) and Nikita Khrushchev (Kim-Scott Miller) were two humans with god-like power, who could pick up a phone and blow up the world with the punch of a button. This world premiere of The Titans puts you there when the United States Strategic Air Command on highest alert under General Curtis LeMay (William Aitken), has 65 airborne B-52’s loaded with nuclear weapons. A fleet of Soviet ships heads toward Cuba carrying military equipment for nuclear missiles installation. Two giants who don’t trust each other are eye-to-eye deadlocked.
According to TACT’s artistic director Jack Marshall, also director of this world premiere The Titans, what really makes playwright Robert McElwaine’s telling of the Cuban Missile Crisis authentic is that not only did he interview participants but also he took out the “uhs” and “ahs” and condensed recently released Kennedy tapes of what was said behind closed doors. Also, he drew upon Nikita Khrushchev’s tapes, translated and published in 1990, a source never-used-verbatim-before. A veteran screenwriter, McElwaine by writing this play updates another writer’s 1973 made-for-TV movie “The Missiles of October,” based on RFK’s memoir “Thirteen Days.” But what goes beyond simulated reality are the words straight from the mouths of the negotiators and decision-makers.
Before the lights come up, the sounds of a hydrogen bomb explosion and news casts crackle in our ears from the era of Khrushchev’s rule. Set designer Trena Weiss-Null transforms a proscenium stage theater into an audience-surrounded arena. The Great Seal of the United States is painted on one side of the floor; the Soviet hammer and sickle and red star on the other. In between, a Doomsday Clock is painted with a crooked minute hand pointing to a few minutes before twelve signifying a short time before nuclear holocaust.
Overall, the play is well-staged and well-acted to communicate clearly that this play is about trust. In Act I, entitled “Miscalculations” there are break out moments when JFK and Khrushchev, isolated in spotlights representing physical distance, shout threats at each other. That staging alone actualizes the cultural and geographical chasm between the two leaders.
Jon Townson, who captures a Boston intonation and accent, plays JFK as an intellectual charmer, who is shedding his role as a sheltered millionaire’s son. Although bullied by Khrushchev in Vienna, JFK is deft at dealing a poker-faced game with Andrei Gromyko, played with steely precision by Brian Razzino. Yet another side Townson shows us is a JFK, capable of private tirades over Berlin and Cuba with his brother and chief advisor, Bobby. Actor John Tweel is so good at humanizing RFK in his pivotal scene with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin (Aitken), he literally wrenches your heart out with fear. Ultimately, JFK’s grace under pressure comes through as he grows into a fast-learning, street-smart world leader of action. It’s hard to understand why, according to Jack Marshall, the Kennedy family vetoed a performance of McElwaine’s play at the Kennedy Center.
Maybe it’s Khrushchev’s reminiscences as a world-weary Cold Warrior, who is more appealing in retirement after his mistakes have removed him from power in 1964. (He died in 1971.) With Kim-Scott Miller, last seen in O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness and who here plays a grandfatherly Khrushchev, emotions seem more important than the character’s words. The actor does a good job with a Russian accent and brings in some welcome comic relief in telling Russian folk homilies, one of Khrushchev’s habits. Far from the image of the shoe-banging world bully at the U.N., Miller plays up Khrushchev’s wit when he ridicules Kennedy’s inexperience. In tense scenes with Gromyko, Miller’s Khrushchev is tough, impetuous and impulsive, yet surprisingly wise, able to transcend cultural misconceptions, and intuitive enough to trust the enemy. But as a world leader, Khrushchev is a complex character whose respect and like for Kennedy grows. The warmer, vulnerable side of the Russian dictator comes through when Miller turns into gentle putty in one simple statement about his wife, Nina. So who saved the world? The ending comes with a twist. Khrushchev’s last line in the play is a total surprise.
A must mention is William Aitken who quadruple-plays four roles, as Adlai Stevenson, Soviet military strategist Rodion Malinowsky, Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin, and General Curtis LeMay. Aitken, who even sounds a bit like Stevenson, has an inspired, brilliant moment as the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. confronting the Russians with aerial photographs of the missile sites.
The danger of McElwaine’s real-talk docudrama is that the language may not be as poetic and theatrical as in Shakespeare’s histories. Also we don’t quite get the stepped-up tension until Act II. The pacing that bogged down in Act I on opening night will hopefully pick up. Sound designer Bill Gordon helps the tension build with overlapping real-life sound bites from media broadcasts. But Act II, entitled “The Knot of War,” during the 13-day countdown to Doomsday, is relentless and seems to prove that facts can be more spine-tingling than fiction. Especially chilling is when JFK says “The clock is ticking,” and the sound of a ticking clock is piped in.
- Running Time: about two hours, including one 15 minute intermission.
- When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m., through Aug. 16, 2008.
- Where: The American Century Theater performs at Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, VA 22206.
- Tickets: Thurs. and Sat./Sun matinees: Reg. $26. Discount: $23 (over 65 or student); Fri./Sat.: Reg. $29. Discount: $26.
- Info: On the website or call 703-998-4555 or e-mail [email protected]
Jack Marshall says
The contrast between this review and Nelson Pressley’s in the Post today couldn’t be more stark. Of special interest to me is Pressley’s comment that theater-goers who are not familiar with the facts and events of the Cuban Missile Crisis should “hustle to see the show,” implying that most people ARE so fully versed in the story that the play holds no surprises. Really? I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, read “Thirteen Days” in college and saw the TV movie, and I didn’t know a lot of what happens in the play, especially from the Russian side. Neither did the cast, the production team, and about 90% of the audience so far. The theory that a straight version of a historical event requires fictionalizing to make it compelling is really anti-history, and has led to such abominations as Billy Zane chasing Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet around the Titanic while it’s sinking, as if the facts of the tragedy weren’t dramatic enough. I may be a sap, but to me, the prospect of nuclear holocaust is enough to keep me interested, even though I know how it turned out.