Terence Rattigan is rightly remembered for his classic dramas in seemingly circumscribed settings that resound with insight into the greater human condition: Separate Tables most of all; also The Winslow Boy and The Browning Version. The playwright is equally unremembered for this 1961 Broadway flop that starred John Mills as Lawrence of Arabia. Ross barely preceded the widely known David Lean-directed, Peter O'Toole-starring movie that sealed at least one generation's view of the controversial British freedom fighter or terrorist, depending on which side you were on.
In the Rattigan version, Lawrence, four years following his 1916-18 triumphs in aiding Arab tribes fighting for independence from the Turks (thereby also assisting the coming British domination of the region), has secretly joined the Royal Air Force as a lowly airman under the name of Ross. He considers this unlikely action a "refuge" from himself and his reputation, and a chance to indulge his "penchant for self-concealment." His ruse is soon discovered, however, and the real Lawrence is revealed, both in scenes with his 1922 RAF superiors and fellow airmen and in a long flashback to his time in the Middle Eastern desert. The latter in particular is a challenge for scenic designer Josh Zangen, but one he meets surprisingly well.
As Ross, Peter Dobbins nicely conveys the various facets of his conflicted character. Also strong are Matthew Waterson as Ross' betrayer and George Taylor as Gen. Allenby. But the rest of the all-male cast is spotty and some of them confuse projecting with yelling. Director Stephen Logan Day tries gamely to gloss over this uneven casting and the lugubrious nature of Rattigan's only overtly biographical play, one that contains very little action but a great deal of talk about it. And, as befits the era in which it was written, Rattigan offers only glancing hints at Lawrence's presumed homosexuality. This reticence now only seems quaint.
Presented by and at the Storm Theatre, 145 W. 46th St., NYC. Nov. 1-18. Wed.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m. (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.