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American Century Theater The Titans

By • Jul 20th, 2008 • Category: Reviews
The Titans
American Century Theater
Gunston Theater II, Arlington, VA
$26-$29/Adults; $23-$26/Seniors; Free 18 and under with adult
Through August 16th

Watching the world premiere of The Titans at American Century Theater, I was transported to a time before my own existence. The Cuban Missile Crisis was an event that captivated our nation for thirteen days, a precarious balance of peace and nuclear war. The power struggle between two nations was intense, gutsy, and often relevant to the state of our politics today. It was a period of misunderstanding, deceit, and the unlikely friendship and respect of two of the biggest figures in history.

Commissioned by the Kennedy Center more than a decade ago, it was repeatedly denied production for various reasons until TACT Artistic Director Jack Marshall insisted that it get its due. He’d seen it in its various inceptions over the years, seen characters come and go, watched the rewrites, and even directed a staged reading of it. 2008 is the magic year-Playwright in Residence Robert M. McElwaine finally has his remarkable work performed.

TACT chose to stage the show in its intimate theater-in-the-round space. Two desks facing each other and vividly painted US and Soviet Union seals on the floor were the only set pieces/decoration. In this particular space, audiences are seated on all four sides, which can certainly be a challenge to block…a challenge that director Marshall met beautifully. We felt as involved in the tension as the players.

The story unfolded in a series of brief vignettes, closed quarter meetings or phone calls between the actors. One small criticism was that instead of merely bringing the lights down to a dim to denote the close of action between each vignette, we were plunged into total darkness each time. It’s been said that the every time the lights come down, one loses the audience. It’s not entirely incorrect. Luckily, the show is appealing enough to minimize that impact.

The key players showcased in this production were Jon Townson as John F. Kennedy, Kim-Scott Miller as Nikita Khrushchev, John Tweel as Robert F. Kennedy, and Brian Razzino as Andrei Gromyko. The four smaller but integral roles of Adlai Stevenson, Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin, General Curtis LeMay, and Marshal Rodion Malinovsky were played by the talented and versatile William Aitken.

Kim-Scott Miller was an absolute standout. His portrayal of the Soviet leader was phenomenal from the moment he took the stage. His perfect Russian dialect and effective age makeup aside, he transcended character and stereotype by finding multiple levels in his role. His Khrushchev was at alternate turns funny, passionate, stubborn, endearing, arrogant, gentle and terrifying.

Not quite as successful was Townson as JFK. That said, it cannot be easy to portray a revered and immortalized historical figure. After seeing the performance today, I couldn’t help but go online and watch the real JFK in action, to ensure that my own thoughts of him were accurate. Even though I wasn’t alive when he was around, my recollections proved true-JFK was eloquent, well-bred, passionate, commanding, and charismatic. Townson had his own brand of charm, but remained almost impassive to the events as they happened. He was overly gentle and not quite intense enough to capture JFK’s true magnetism. Also hampering him was his difficulty in maintaining JFK’s trademark New England accent. He veered into a mostly British (and sometimes Irish) dialect, which was distracting for the American President. He is clearly a capable actor, but he crossed the fine line from a collected negotiator to an indifferent one, and it lacked conviction.

John Tweel gave a great deal of heart and sincerity in his portrayal of Bobby Kennedy. He was a good foil to his older brother, keeping him grounded and humble. He had an especially brilliant scene with Ambassador Dobrynin, where he imparted his wish that the war between their countries would not happen. His simple plea for a little humanity was very effective.

Razzino was well cast as Khrushchev’s right hand man Gromyko. He gave an edgy, unpolished performance which reflected the often thuggish and seedy side of politics.

William Aitken was terrific in all of his roles, but really hit his stride as Adlai Stevenson. Giving a historic press statement, he oozed charisma and power, often as seductive as a preacher.

The play itself was engaging, well-written, emotional and interesting. The acting was superior and true to life. But it was the direction that was exceptional. Marshall kept the action flowing, never letting the movements become too static or clichéd. And at no time did the audience feel left out, even when the actors had their backs to them. It was masterfully done. Especially successful was the use of a ticking clock during a JFK & Khrushchev debate, with overlapping dialogue adding to the rising pressure.

Sound designer Bill Gordon should be congratulated-the combat sound effects, old radio broadcasts, and even Irish political music were very well done and helpful to the storyline. The costumes (done by Rip Klaassen) were precise and appropriate to the time period.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was an important part of our history. One side of the story was told in the book and movie 13 Days, written by Robert F. Kennedy. A more balanced view of the story is represented in this play. Go and see for yourself…

-McCall N. Doyle

Cast:

  • John F. Kennedy: Jon Townson
  • Nikita Krushchev: Kim: Scott Miller
  • Robert F. Kennedy: John Tweel
  • Andrei Gromyko: Brian Razzino
  • Adlai Stevenson/Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin/General Curtis LeMay/Marshal Rodion Malinovsky: William Aitken

Prouction Staff:

  • Producer/Assistant Director/Dialect Coach: Jason M. Beagle
  • Director: Jack Marshall
  • Stage Manager: Rhonda Hill
  • Set Designer/Set Construction/Properties: Trena Weiss: Null
  • Lighting Designer: AnnMarie Castrigno
  • Sound Designer: Bill Gordon
  • Costumer: Rip Claassen
  • Technical Director/Set Construction: Michael Null
  • Board Operator: Grant Marshall
  • Wardrobe: Izzy Angel, Chanukah Jane Lilburne
  • Photographer: Jeff Bell
  • Program/Program Logo: Michael Sherman
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One Response »

  1. Thanks, McCall, for a thoughtful, well-written and perceptive review—and for the kind words. My only cavil is about Jon’s accent, which was intentionally toned down to avoid the Mayor Quimby connection: most people remember JFK impressionists rather than JFK, and it has humorous implications today. We felt holding to the accent would get in the way of the character; the production of “Stuff Happens” made a similar decision, and I think its the right one. (And the lilt to the real JFK accent IS Irish, says this native-born Bostonian.) But anyway, it was a choice, and mine: Jon could do a perfect Vaughn Meader Kennedy if he was asked.

    Special Kudos and thanks for noting the Drop Kick Murphys, whose version of “Johnny We Hardly Knew
    Ye” is a theme throughout the evening. In case you’re a trivia buff, here are the reasons that cut was so appropriate to “The Titans”:

    The Tune:

    * The tune is most recognized as”When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” an American war song..

    * ….which is often used to symbolize the futility of and sadness of war (it was popular with both the North and the South during the Civil War)

    * It was the theme used by Stanley Kubrick for all the scenes in “Dr. Strangelove” involving the American bomber preparing to drop an A-bomb on Russia. The movie itself was inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    The Lyrics:

    * “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye” is an old Irish funeral song, used as the title of Kennedy aide Ken O’Donnell’s JFK memoir.

    * Its refrain “guns and guns and drums and drums” has the proper bellicose flavor for the play’s story, and references the Cold War tensions in context.

    The Origin: It is an old Irish song fitting with JFK’s old Irish ancestry.

    The Arrangement: I wanted a song that would end the show (the sad guitar strum that starts the song, heard after Khrushchev’s “I wept”), provide something lively but dark for the curtain call, and go long enough to get everyone out of the theater…and it’s a 5 minute plus arrangement.

    The Band: Of course, the Drop Kick Murphys are a Boston-based Irish band, as were the Kennedys…

    and finally…

    The Obscure: The band is famous for its hit rendition of “Tessie,” the anthem of the 1903 Red Sox championship team. It recorded it in 2004, the year the Sox finally won the World Series. The original “Tessie” used to be sung at games by the “Royal Rooters,” a fanatic group of Red Sox supporters whose leader was Boston mayor “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald…the maternal grandfather of JFK and RFK!

    (And, on a personal note, it is the favorite band of my 13 year-old son, Grant, who ran the sound board when you saw the show!)

    Thanks again!


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