Washington — One of the expert witnesses in ``The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial'' is talking about the ship's captain, Lt. Comdr. Philip Francis Queeg: ``He revises reality in his own mind so he comes out blameless.'' Well, not quite, because we are never sure just what happened aboard the USS Caine that night in World War II during a Philippine typhoon. While the destroyer foundered and seemed about to sink, the captain issued an order so bizarre that he was relieved of his command. But determining what happened is what the drama now on stage at Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater is all about. After an opening scene so slow it seems stuck in dry dock, ``The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial'' takes off full speed ahead on a gripping, two-hour mystery cruise.
Charlton Heston is captain of the cruise, literally and figuratively. The Hollywood star directed this revival of Herman Wouk's drama (based on Wouk's Pulitzer Prize- winning novel), and Heston also plays Queeg. Unfortunately, he has miscast himself. But as the play's director, he is responsible for a riveting (except when he's on stage himself), tightly paced, suspenseful production.
In directing himself, Heston has not found the theatrical equivalent of the film close-ups and editing montages that have heightened the drama of his movie roles. His Queeg is too normal, too pleasantly authoritative to be plausible as the rigid martinet who kept the entire crew searching the Caine three days and nights for a quart of missing strawberries. Even in his final scene, when his face begins to dissolve in horror over the exposure of the apparent cowardice that caused his men to call him ``Old Yellow Stain,'' he never convinces us. We can't believe Queeg was half-crazed by the rigors of long battle service and broken completely on the night of the Caine mutiny.
If Heston is not the star of this production, Ben Cross is. The British actor who sprinted through the film ``Chariots of Fire'' takes a quantum leap and becomes as American as an Annapolis officer in the role of Lt. Barney Greenwald. Greenwald, pressed into defending Lt. Stephen Maryk, who led the mutiny, says, ``I'd rather prosecute you than defend you, Maryk.'' He then proceeds brilliantly to win the case, upending the evidence until it is Queeg himself who is on trial.
Cross plays Greenwald with a burning intensity that doesn't permit the audience to blink when he's on stage. He is like some legal torpedo locked on its target. But the real explosion comes after Maryk's acquittal, at the hotel party thrown by Lt. Thomas Keefer (William Wright), to celebrate publication of his first novel.
There Greenwald lashes out at Keefer as the subtle engineer of the mutiny, the real villain who suggested it and let Maryk take the blame. Cross as Greenwald, stung by the anti-Semitism he's encountered in the World War II Navy, is searing as he blames the crew and himself for their prejudice in destroying the 17-year career of the war-wrecked Queeg.
Among the other excellent performances are those by Michael Thoma as the outspoken Lt. J. G. Willis Keith, William Wright as the obnoxious Keefer, Joe George as expert witness Forrest Lundeen, and Vincent Marzello as Dr. Bird. Saul Radomsky has supplied an intimidating courtroom setting, all mahogany paneling, brass-studded green leather, and flags.
Playing concurrently at the Kennedy Center, in its upstairs Terrace Theater, is another play about a commanding officer driven mad by war. There the resemblance ends in Peter Sellars's excessive and chaotic assault on Sophocles's ``Ajax.''
This contemporary version by Robert Auletta is set in America just after a victory over Latin American rebels, but the play is so incoherent that no clear point seems to be made. Under Sellars, director of the American National Theater, ``Ajax'' is not so much a performance as an attack on the audience that sits captive to it. Its best moments are in Sellars's staging, which is always innovative, and in the furious, powerful performance of the deaf actor Howie Seago as Ajax (his lines are spoken by members of a men's chorus of actors).