Ford's 'Yankee' replay marred Theater review: 'Magnificent Yankee' suffers from too many mundane stretches, but actor James Whitmore embodies Justice Holmes.

February 08, 1996|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

James Whitmore has impersonated his share of sharp-witted American individualists. His roles include Will Rogers, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman. These are the kind of heroic figures who can lasso a laugh with ease, carry a big stick for resolution, and give 'em hell when the occasion warrants.

In that same historical and often humorous spirit, another hero in his repertoire is Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., whom he completely embodies in the Ford's Theater production of the late Emmet Lavery's 1947 sentimental comedy "The Magnificent Yankee."

Spanning a 30-year period from the presidential administration of Theodore Roosevelt to that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the play does a fair job of immersing us in some of the important legal cases that went before the Supreme Court during that period.

At times it may seem as if law clerks are the ideal audience for this play, but the playwright does have the good sense to state the political in personal terms.

Holmes' pearls of legal wisdom are sprinkled throughout the three-act play, but the spotlight isn't just on the judge. Instead, the focus is on the affectionate banter between Holmes and his wife, Fanny Dixwell Holmes (Audra Lindley), during their 57-year marriage.

The smoothness with which their Hepburn-Tracy-ish lines are exchanged is to be expected. Mr. Whitmore and Ms. Lindley, who were once married, did this play together 20 years ago.

Doing it again, and with the same director, Peter Hunt, ensures they'll slip into their parts without fuss. However, Ms. Lindley's habit of mumbling some of her lines doesn't seem true to such an outspoken character as Mrs. Holmes.

Although the spirited husband-and-wife debates make for an agreeable series of visits to the Holmes' Washington home, there are too many mundane stretches in this leisurely plotted play.

Thank goodness Mr. and Mrs. Holmes aren't completely alone in the house. A considerable cast populates their richly furnished household with a maid, several friends, and a seemingly endless succession of law clerks who serve as surrogate sons to the childless couple.

Among the conversational pals are Owen Wister (Don Perkins), author of the 1902 western novel "The Virginian," and Henry Adams of the Adams family of presidential lineage. It's a shame that Adams, a brilliant and complex man, is treated by the script as no more than an irksome caricature carping about early 20th century political leaders.

More fully developed is Justice Louis Brandeis (Bill Raymond), with whom Holmes became close friends. Their lively conversations bring some old court cases to life again. Renowned as a champion of free speech, Holmes speaks out quite eloquently on this issue during their legal chats.

Of course, theatergoers should be thankful that Justice Holmes once famously noted an exception to freedom of speech, namely that the First Amendment does not give anyone the right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater.

'Yankee'

Where: Ford's Theater, 511 10th St., N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; with matinees at 1 p.m. Thursday (except today) and 2 p.m. Sundays; through March 10

Tickets: $24 to $36

Call: (202) 347-4833

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