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The Body Politic 

Intern trouble in swingin' D.C.

Wednesday, Sep 30 1998
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Let's face it, most Americans would have been mortified to learn that their president had had a bowel movement in the White House, let alone extramarital sex there. Furthermore, were there a legal loophole available for doing so, Washington's professional Clinton-haters would pursue his prosecution for such an offense. And, for his part, Bill Clinton would probably deny ever having had the controversial bowel movement, in or out of the West Wing. (You can hear him now: "It depends on what you mean by 'movement.'") This is all because we remain a squeamishly Puritan country that regards not only sex but almost anything relating to the body, its functions and its orifices with disgust, shame and fear.

Well, publicly, that is, for when nature calls we pretty much leave our repugnance about such things at the bathroom or bedroom door. Our behavior in the ever-shrinking privacy of homes, cars and garages is no different from that of the rest of the world. Just ask the two main characters of Ralph Tropf's forensic drama, Shadow Hour. His play, currently presented by the All Roses Company at the Stella Adler, is about the trial of a U.S. senator accused of raping his intern, and it has that serendipitous, Wag the Dog good fortune to appear during our backdoor president's latest girl trouble. Written in the comparatively innocent year of 1993, Shadow Hour focuses on the familiar semantic logrolling of sex trials, and even features a courtroom scene in which the aggrieved intern's cocktail dress is entered into evidence, which seems to make Tropf a veritable off-Broadway Nostradamus.

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Closer viewing, however, reveals the play to be more about the case of Bob Packwood than that of Bill packing wood. Tropf's politician is, after all, an affable veteran senator who's a bachelor. As played by David Ruprecht under Barbara Passolt's direction, Senator Adam Martin even looks somewhat like a younger Packwood. He's a likable guy and certainly no wolf, which makes his predicament all the more uncomfortable for theatergoers. The alarm bells ring early in Act 1: First, Martin feels he has to be accompanied by a female to a Beltway party, then allows perky, 21-year-old intern Christy Connelly (Jennifer Gordon) to "persuade" him to take her along. Wine, xylophone music, a middle-aged man's loneliness and a young girl's naivete end with the couple on Christy's couch for some fore-and-aft play that puts bruises on Christy and lands the senator in the dock.

The play's question is, basically: Was she jumped, or did she push? Did the senator force sex on Christy, or did she coquettishly goad him into it? Did she teasingly change her mind about letting him get to first base, or didn't Martin have the self-control to take "maybe" for an answer? That's what the jury - and the audience - must decide. The play, cleverly, has actors playing double roles, so that the principals in the Christy-Adam affair also become its jurors and lawyers (who at times seem to dimly reflect Christy and Adam's personalities), with the action shifting back and forth between courthouse arguments and a progressive re-enactment of the fateful night and subsequent events.

Shadow Hour doesn't quite rise to the standard of David Mamet's Oleanna or Mac Wellman's 7 Blowjobs. On the one hand, it's never tempted to probe some of the more subtle emotions that politicize sexual anger and hurt. Nor, on the other, does it let us forget we are watching a serious moral drama. (It also squanders all sorts of theatrical opportunities by omitting from the proceedings the "second" branch of the judiciary - the media.)

It is, however, a provocative and suspenseful work of theater that doesn't recline into lazy political positions and looks at both sides of a volatile story without sitting on the fence. When Tropf does express an opinion about the senator's actions at the very end, it doesn't fall from out of the blue.

What is a date? Does kissing constitute sex? To what extent can the law protect people from themselves? Shadow Hour's jurors ask these kinds of questions, and shift their views according to the confusion they receive in lieu of answers. After the preliminary jury ballot, it looks as though Senator Martin is dead in the water, but as the impossibility of ever knowing the intentions of two people alone at night weighs upon the 12 citizens, more and more of them change their minds. There is one person who never wavers, though, the hyperfeminist Rachel Owens (Liz Mamana), an angry woman so strident in her position that every time she clears her throat to speak we react the way we do to the priming of a leaf blower.

Yet instead of stacking the deck with this unpleasant character, the playwright is really using her as a feint to further obscure his own judgment of Senator Martin. Tropf may not have endowed Shadow Hour with crackling dialogue, but he knows how to use language to get on people's nerves and divert their attention from the issues, so that when the denouement arrives, we're genuinely unprepared for it.

Passolt's production makes for a handsome and briskly paced Potomac nightmare that captures the gray zones of morality without absolving us of personal responsibility. It is a no-win story, played out on Yakovetic's multitiered set, on which everything is faux-marbled and dominated by totemic columns that, through Steven Young's lighting, first appear as reddish, veiny - well, you get the idea.

Passolt gets some fine ensemble work from her cast, especially from Cliff Gober and Jane McPherson as, respectively, the prosecuting and defense attorneys. For all the shouting that occurs in the jury room, the play's real heat emanates from the scorpion's dance between these two implacable adversaries. It's no accident that they represent opposite-gendered clients and that in some unspoken, tribal understanding, they are "betraying" their own sex.

Contrary to what William J. Bennett says, outrage has not died in America. If anything, we live in a time of permanent outrage, where every white lie and moral jaywalk becomes an ineffable scandal and the accused consigned to that media Nuremburg from which no reputation ever recovers. Liberals enjoyed a moment of triumphal gloating when Bob Packwood was forced to resign from the Senate, where, ironically, he was considered strong on women's rights. But few of his enemies cared to ponder, at that time, the terrible erosion the seizure and public display of Packwood's private diaries spelled for individual civil liberties.

This court-sanctioned snooping, supervised by a Senate Ethics Committee counsel named Kenneth Starr and applauded by the left, was a sign of how far Washington was willing to go to humiliate people in a war not against male hegemony, but against sex and those who yield to the body's temptations. As one of Tropf's jurors exclaims, "It's the Middle Ages again."

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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