“This is going to make me a nervous wreck,” said an old woman seated on a gaudy chair just outside the padded gray doors that led into the performance space of the Hayworth Theater.
“Why?” asked her friend, sitting on an adjacent chair while tightening the Velcro on her sneaker as strenuously as somebody trying to lift a heavy cage of angry crabs out of the water.
“Because it’s about weapons, and anything about weapons makes me a nervous wreck,” said the old woman, blinking hard behind lenses as thick as hockey pucks.
The show was called Scott Ritter: Waging Peace Across America — The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement, and, judging by the rather long-winded ambiguity of its title and the conversation of the theater patrons gathering in the lobby for its opening, everybody seemed to be a little bit nervous about what to expect from the performance. Its billing as “ ... a work-in-progress live theatrical production” seemed to suggest that Ritter, known primarily as a former United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) weapons inspector and an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, had some unknown talent that the confines of political oratory had, previous to tonight, prevented him from engaging in. Perhaps Ritter would be demonstrating something as delightfully far afield from his professional persona as Christopher Walken when he first danced on Saturday Night Live or Paul Newman when he suddenly started distributing his own salad dressing and crappy faux-Oreo cookies. Anticipation hung in the air.
Finally allowed into the 99-seat theater, the audience settled into their chairs, chuckling over the incongruity of the show’s subject matter juxtaposed with the unstruck bedroom set from another production. But before anybody had a chance to make complete sense of the oddity of the surroundings, Ritter’s warm-up act, Roy Zimmerman, was introduced and came jogging out onto the stage to announce buoyantly, while readying his acoustic guitar for whimsy, “I do political satire!” The proclamation sounded starkly amateurish, like a magician walking onstage to announce, through a big how-yah-doing smile, that he does magic!
Dressed in pleated charcoal-colored pants, a conservative tie, a gold wedding ring and rimless glasses, Zimmerman looked less like a satirist and more like one of those salesmen you see standing outside an empty mattress store at the mall trying to hand out coupons to recoiling shoppers. For nearly an hour he held the room confidently in his palm — stroking it hard and imagining that it was much bigger than it really was — finally ending with a song that repeated ad nauseam the embarrassing rallying cry, “God bless America ... it just might work!”
Then, after a lengthy intermission, the houselights dimmed and Ritter took the stage, appearing, as usual, as durably plain as a 6-foot-4-inch guidance counselor eager to cut through all the bullshit at a high school assembly. In his blazer, dress shirt, digital watch, new jeans and Sunday-school shoes, he set his Diet Coke down on the stool next to him and proceeded to cut to the chase, over and over and over and over again, gesturing like a millennium salesman who wouldn’t dare lie to you in a million years.
“So here I am in Los Angeles ... onstage ... in a theater — who’d a thunk it for a Marine?” he began, receiving polite and chummy laughter, which, as the night wore on, eventually gave way to the sort of polite and chummy applause golfers receive at the sinking of 3- and 4-foot putts.
So where exactly were the theatrics that had been suggested by the show’s description? Sure, there might have been a little more yelling from Ritter than typically occurred at his usual speaking engagements. Also true at one point, in an attempt to simulate what knocking down a door might look like for those who’d never watched television before, he did kick his little brown shoe into the air with all the convincing bravado of a mid-’70s Elvis Presley fighting off imaginary ninjas. And the performance was, in fact, being conducted inside an actual theater. But what might have read on paper as a thrilling night of one man’s personal account of his own treacherous journey from the savage, war-torn sands of Desert Storm to the savage, antiwar-torn streets and amphitheaters and free libraries of the American peace movement ended up coming across more like a wrestling match between one man’s right brain and his left brain, between his bleeding heart and his robotic logic.
“When you go to war as a soldier, the debate’s over,” he said, standing in front of the bedroom set onstage and pointing his finger into the common chest of the audience like he was a disappointed parent explaining why we couldn’t be trusted with the keys to the car. “You’ve been given a lawful order, and you’re doing your job — you’re not [in combat] to debate the constitutionality of the act!” he said, equating the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a fire that we should hate, and our brave men and women in uniform with innocent firefighters we should love, refusing to address the more telling analogous fact that we’ve only given the troops flamethrowers to fight with.
Was this theater of the absurd, something worthy of Genet and Beckett? Was I interpreting Ritter’s words too literally and missing the artistry of what he was purposely not saying? Was this satire?
“I have no problem with the U.S. government running a propaganda campaign,” Ritter waxed eloquently at the end of the night. “It’s their right — just be honest with us [and] don’t disguise [the propaganda] behind a curtain of credibility.”
No, I realized then, this was not Waiting for Godot — it was just me waiting to go.