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THEATER REVIEW

West Point story can't pass muster

'Matter of Honor' tries to make a notorious 1880 attack on a black cadet into a whodunit.

September 04, 2007|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

In "Matter of Honor," a world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, playwright Michael J. Chepiga attempts to shed new light on an infamous historical episode: the 1880 scandal at West Point surrounding African American cadet Johnson Whittaker, who was tied to his bed and savagely attacked by persons unknown.

Subsequently accused of staging the attack himself, Whittaker was court-martialed and convicted. Despite the fact that President Chester A. Arthur overturned that conviction, Whittaker was "separated" from the Point -- expelled -- ostensibly because of a failing grade.

Whittaker went on to become an attorney and an esteemed educator, but his mistreatment remains a black eye for the U.S. military. The incident, which earlier spawned a 1994 made-for-television movie, prompted President Clinton to award Whittaker a posthumous commission in 1995.

Apparently hoping to drum up maximum dramatic tension, Chepiga tries to convert Whittaker's sad tale into a whodunit, complete with a hard-hitting private eye and an edgy courtroom scene that dissolves into a cacophony of accusatory shouting.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 06, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
"Matter of Honor": A theater review in Tuesday's Calendar section of "Matter of Honor" at the Pasadena Playhouse misidentified the actor who played the government representative. He is Adam J. Smith, not Adam J. Stern.

Perhaps Chepiga intended a revisionist, "Rashomon"-like approach to the historical record. But his sadly muddled point of view, combined with Scott Schwartz's stilted and formulaic staging, fails to breathe new life into the story. A random doodle in the dust of history, "Honor" leaves us wondering what Chepiga may actually be struggling to say about his subject.

A large part of the problem is the shift of focus from Whittaker (Cedric Sanders), a proud, young black cadet, born into slavery, to Chase (Eric Lutes), the acerbic, blue-blooded private investigator who has been summoned to solve the crime by Gen. Schofield (Richard Doyle), West Point's beleaguered superintendent.

The play opens in 1882, when Chase, a shambling and reclusive alcoholic, is questioned by a government representative (Adam J. Stern) who is reopening an inquiry into the Whittaker case. The action then flashes back to 1880, as the brashly self-confident Chase launches his own investigation into the recent scandal.

The looming stone edifice of Robert Brill's splendid scenic design indicates that West Point is a world apart, where rules are set in stone and any violation of procedure could result in separation.

The stakes are high for these young cadets. But there's an odd dearth of suspects in Chase's investigation. There are Foster (Brian Watkins), a young cadet who was pilloried by his fellow cadets for speaking to Whittaker, and Stanton (Steve Coombs), an aristocratic Southerner who makes no secret of his disdain for Whittaker. Scratch their spit-and-polish surfaces, though, and you'll find the spit-and-polish souls of honorable young men who live by the Point's exacting code.

That's also problematic. The characters, with the exception of Chase, are so squeaky-clean and well-meaning that the tale loses any hint of genuine mystery. More troubling, Chepiga seems to share in Chase's conclusion that Whittaker staged his own assault to trump up sympathy after failing his philosophy orals -- an uncomfortable denouement that paints Whittaker as the architect of his own misfortune.

Perhaps Chepiga's research caused him to draw that conclusion, but if so, the historically revisionist slant is fuzzily plotted. Chase does renege on his own theory at the court-martial, but he has not changed his opinion. On the contrary, he is willfully perjuring himself -- apparently out of solidarity with and sympathy for the accused.

That eleventh-hour reversal is bizarrely unmotivated, as is Chase's subsequent collapse into alcoholic dolor. Throughout the play, Chepiga's intentions remain frustratingly murky. What is clear is that the peculiarly unsympathetic Chase is a drag on the story's momentum and historical veracity.

Chase's investigation may expose more unpleasant truths about Chase himself than about any endemic corruption at the Point, but by that time we don't really care. The character we really want to get inside is Whittaker -- and he is given short shrift in this well-meaning but confused drama.

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'Matter of Honor'

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. No 8 p.m. shows today or Sept. 12 and 19. Additional matinee 2 p.m. Sept. 19.

Ends: Sept. 30

Price: $40 to $60

Contact: (626) 356-PLAY or www.

pasadena.playhouse.org

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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