The Missiles of October
adapted by Karey Faulkner from a teleplay by Stanley R. Greenberg
based in part on the book “Thirteen Days” by Robert F. Kennedy
directed by Karey Faulkner
produced by The Heritage Theatre Company
reviewed by Tim Treanor
Heritage, a relatively young company which, as its mission, produces plays about American history, presents us with an adaptation of Stanley Greenberg’s much admired teleplay about the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is staged in the beautiful old Round House Theater, now a Montgomery County municipal building, and features a very fine performance by Jeff Murray, a former Foreign Service Officer, as Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. Murray is a deeply human Khrushchev, whose every moment on stage is authentic. These are the best things – indeed, the only good things – I can say about this absolutely calamitous production, an embarrassing two hour affliction which manages to make one of the most dangerous moments in human history about as exciting as – well, as the proceedings of the Montgomery County Legislature.
Perhaps you remember the Cuban missile crisis: the Soviet Union installed launching pads for thermonuclear missiles in Cuba, about 90 miles from Miami (the distance from Richmond to Washington). Young Jack Kennedy (here played by Sean Coe), having experienced the humiliation of a failed effort by U.S.-sponsored Cuban émigrés to win back Cuba was resolved to respond aggressively, and to compel the USSR to dismantle the missile sites. Both countries dug in their heels, and for a brief period a nuclear war was a real possibility. However, the two nations, and their leaders, found room to maneuver and we reached an understanding.
This was an extraordinary moment in human history, and both the memoir written by the President’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and Greenberg’s elegant teleplay managed to capture the dread tension of the time. But this production combines bad acting, worse direction and abysmal technical support to produce an absolutely tedious and inauthentic effect.
Let us begin with the acting. As JFK, Coe is somber and depressed, and thus unrecognizable to those of us who remember him. What sustained the real Kennedy, notwithstanding his inexperience, was his unquenchable optimism and self-confidence. But Coe’s Kennedy is a mumbler, who bats his eyes with dismaying frequency (a characteristic of Carter, not Kennedy). He frequently talks through his hands, and his energy is low throughout. It is sometimes difficult to hear him, and his Boston accent fades in and out. It is, withal, a dismal performance for someone who is the heart and soul of the story, although it is not, by far, the worst performance in the show.
As the President’s brother Bobby, Robert Scott Hitcho is full of strange, inexplicable rages. Unlike Coe, he does not attempt a dialect, and he plays Bobby as a placid fellow who periodically gets red in the face, shouts and tears up papers. His failure to allow his character to build to his emotional climaxes makes Bobby incredible, as well as inexplicable. Stephen Rourke plays Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and he is just fine as long as he sits down. Rourke has the lilting Georgia accent of the former Secretary down, and he shows the command that one would expect of a senior cabinet officer. But it is a different story once he stands up. He is wearing charcoal grey running shoes! (The costume design is wisely uncredited.) Worse, he is full of gestures and facial ticks. His turn as Soviet Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Valerian Zorin is so far over the top that it requires a telescope to take it in.
But worst of all is Bruce Gruber as General Maxwell Taylor. Taylor was the Army Chief of Staff and the most important voice in favor of bombing the missile sites. He plays a crucial role in this dramatization as he did in the real crisis. It is through Taylor that much of the story’s conflict is generated, and Kennedy’s handling of Taylor shows the President’s political and diplomatic gifts. Regrettably, Gruber as Taylor is at war with his lines from the moment he steps on stage. He is a fumblemouth who forgets what he is saying in the middle of his speeches, and what he remembers he delivers in an earnest monotone.
Good directing can sometimes compensate for bad acting, and Faulkner, directing her own adaptation, has some clever staging ideas. Most of them are sabotaged by poor technical execution. She splits the stage in half, putting the Oval Office stage right with the Cabinet Room opposite. This allows action to proceed from one venue to the other smoothly and without delay. Regrettably, she frequently has actors pantomiming away from the action, thus providing the audience with a constant stream of distraction. Worse, she separates the two sides of the stage with a runner full of obviously, and badly, pasted-on stars.
Cleverly, Faulkner has the audience stand in for the Soviet Presidium, and obliges Khrushchev to answer questions which appear to come from the audience but in fact are broadcast over the sound system. Unfortunately, those questions are broadcast at such skull-blasting volume that we don’t care what Khrushchev answers, as long as he makes the noise stop. (The recorded applause – which seems to come at random – at a Kennedy campaign rally is at a similarly obnoxious pitch.) Indeed, the volume of these excruciating moments is so loud it almost makes us forget about the annoying buzz that runs the length of the show (Company Manager Dan Fordham does the sound design, and Michael Wilburn is the Sound Operator.)
But the first obligation of a director is to assure us that the actors deliver their lines crisply, as though they are talking to each other, and not delivering memorized lines. In tension-filled dramas, the lines must come in on top of each other, driven by the high stakes. In this production, the lines are about as crisp as a bowl of corn flakes after an all-night soaking in tepid milk, and the only times the actors come in on each other is when one of them misses a cue. At one point Bobby Kennedy and Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin (R. Brett Rohr) have a face to face confrontation. Kennedy has just assured Dobrynin that if a Soviet ship tries to run the American blockade, the Americans will turn it back. The two of them stare at each other. They are silent. The tension is unbearable. And then Dobrynin says…”Goodnight, Bobby.”
The undercooked nature of this production is encapsulated by a moment near the end. The Soviets have just backed down and the cabinet is in an uproar of celebration. (I trust I’m not giving anything away here). Secretary of State Rusk turns to shake hands with…nobody. There’s nobody there. He goes up and down the Cabinet, forlorn. No one will shake hands with him. They’re all shaking hands with somebody else. This is the sort of fundamental problem that the director must resolve by the third or fourth rehearsal.
America, no less than the England of Shakespeare’s time, needs its history plays. It helps us understand who we are, and the forces that have shaped us. If we take this production at face value, the Cuban Missile Crisis was solved by a group of fumblemouthed depressives who had to cope with a loud buzzing sound throughout their deliberations. I hope this is not how history remembers those times.
A few housekeeping matters: (1) I have previously acted with Greg Rumpf, who portrayed, competently, CIA Director John McCone in this production. This did not influence my review.. (2) The company is collecting canned goods and coats for the homeless, and is offering $5 off the price of an adult ticket for donations. Whether or not you go to the show, consider dropping by with a donation.
Running Time: 2:00, no intermission.
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 until November 8. There is a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, November 1, and a special performance on November 22 (time not posted).
Where: 4010 Randolph Road, Silver Spring, MD. Note: although this is the address on the building, it is located on Bushey Street and Colie Drive.
Tickets: $28-$32, with discounts for seniors and students.