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New Play On Kennedy In Moscow

January 24, 1986|WILLIAM J. EATON | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A new play that portrays the late President John F. Kennedy as a slightly flawed hero of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis opened Wednesday night to a standing-room-only audience here.

The one-act play, "Burden of Decision," makes no mention of Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet premier who sent the missiles to Cuba that led to the showdown that almost provoked war between the superpowers.

President Kennedy and his brother Robert are portrayed sympathetically. But some White House advisers, including top military officers, are vilified as superhawks eager to bomb the Kremlin.

With Robert F. Kennedy, then attorney general, acting as emissary to the Soviet ambassador in Washington, the President works out a secret peace agreement to end the crisis. And an ebullient Robert declares, "We were speaking not as a Russian and an American but only as two human beings."

The playwright, Fyodor M. Burlatsky, has insisted publicly that his version of the U.S. side of the crisis is based entirely on the historical record. But he acknowledged in an interview that one scene depicting a barroom meeting between FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the President's wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, was a product of his imagination.

In the scene--while Hoover and Mrs. Kennedy talk about the President's policy toward Cuba-- a record of Frank Sinatra singing "Strangers in the Night" is heard in the background. Then Sinatra, played by an actor with a devilish grin, appears, along with a busty blond in a black lace dress identified as the President's girlfriend, Judy, a nightclub singer with Mafia connections.

Hoover, an anti-Communist, is depicted as the villain of the crisis. Hoover tells the First Lady that her husband may be in danger if he does not take a firm line toward Fidel Castro's Cuba. He also tells her the President has received more than 70 telephone calls from Judy on his private line.

Jacqueline, played by an attractive red-haired actress, takes a motherly, almost doting attitude toward her husband, especially when he collapses with back pains.

Most of the action takes place at the White House, where the President and his advisers argue over whether to invade Cuba, bomb the Soviet missile sites or order a naval blockade.

There are few laughs. One comes when an American general boasts, "We'll get rid of the Russian mushrooms, one by one."

The drama brings back the New Frontier and its leading actors, including Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger and speech writer Theodore C. Sorensen.

The President is pictured as a moderate force in the sharp exchanges over how to respond to the deployment of Soviet missiles on an island 90 miles off Florida. After he sends brother Robert on his secret mission, President Kennedy is seen kneeling in prayer, appealing to God to spare the world from nuclear wrath.

"I am not God," the President says in anguish, indicating that he does not want to decide whether to risk a nuclear exchange with Moscow.

After listening to forecasts of cities destroyed and untold millions killed in a nuclear showdown with the Soviets, Kennedy turns to his FBI chief and says, "Do you still want to attack Cuba?"

An ominous figure in the play, a Major Smith, is shown hovering in the background with a black case containing the codes necessary to launch a nuclear strike.

President Kennedy, portrayed by the well known actor A. A. Mironov, appears as a patriotic, religious, physically weakened and emotionally troubled man. Once, collapsed on the floor of the White House with back pain, he expresses concern that he will become a cripple and be laughed at for his illness.

President Kennedy seems to have a premonition that he will be assassinated in November, 1963. He tells his brother that he is going to the theater, like Abraham Lincoln, who was shot and killed in a theater a century earlier.

The opening-night audience was noticeably restrained. Muffled laughter was heard at only a few points in the 1-hour, 45-minute drama. Afterward, applause was limited. In Soviet theaters actors are sometimes showered with flowers, but on this occasion there was only a single bouquet.

The play is being staged at the Satirical Theater, which can seat up to 1,400 people. Ticket prices range from 70 kopecks (about 90 cents) to 2 rubles and 40 kopecks (about $3.10).

Serious dramas on American themes are rare in the Soviet theater. Lampoons are more common. The only other recent play about an American President dealt with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is highly regarded in the Soviet Union because of his leadership in World War II.

The opening-night crowd at the Kennedy play, possibly awed by the theme of the threat of nuclear confrontation, seemed subdued as they left the theater. An elderly woman told Burlatsky his work was "an intelligent portrayal," and a middle-aged office worker said she enjoyed the play, though it was "very serious."

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