Inauguration Day 2009, officially ending the Bush era, bodes poorly for what’s been a flush time for political stage parodies (from Rik Keller’s Dubya 2000 to Joshua Rosenblum’s musical revue, Bush Is Bad) and allegories (from John O’Keefe’s Times Like These to Guy Zimmerman’s Man.gov). Forget Tim Robbins and David Hare and their very literal docudramas about the politics surrounding Bush II’s invasion of Iraq, Embedded and Stuff Happens, respectively — along with the recent flurry of political fables involving governmental thuggery and the erosion of civil liberties. Nothing can compete with the inversion of our laws and traditions or, for that matter, with the Through the Looking Glass reality that’s transformed Washington since 2001.
The paradox, theatrically, is that the truths underlying these dramas of vexation are now far too obvious. Our theater — like dissident theater under communism — has been a place for playwrights and directors to scream in frustration, mostly to sympathetic crowds of 100 or less. This ripple of commentary may or may not have been part of the sea change in the general public, from supporting to opposing policies that aggrandize the executive branch at the cost of checks and balances. But the Dems now control Congress and are screwing up in new and inventive ways, and plays still carping on the loss of civil liberties are further behind the curve than ever — merely confirming our presumptions rather than challenging them. Bush-bashing hasn’t been part of any provocative ideas for some time now.
Enter novelist Robert J. Litz with his first play, the absorbing, tartly written One Fell Swoop, receiving its premiere by Hollywood’s Elephant Theatre Company. It looks ahead to 2009, when an unnamed Democratic president prepares to appoint a new Supreme Court justice. The nominee, Judge Richard Barron (Gregory Mortensen), is what was once called an “activist” judge, known for upholding privacy rights that his opponents claim are not written into the Constitution. On the eve of the president’s announcement, our narrator/heroine, Caitlin Reese (Megan Dolan) — a self-described lawyer, professor of constitutional law and single woman with a purring sex drive (but no cats) — is invited by a quick-witted, haughty yet obsequious PBS tech director, Terry Wells (Darryl Armbruster), to appear on a talk-show discussion about Judge Barron.
The reason for her being placed in this slingshot to fame is tricky for her. Though she’s attractive, articulate, and was recommended by the nominee himself, she did have a secret affair with the judge years ago when she was a law student, and her lingering, tortured friendship with his wife, Alice (Pamela Roylance), has been racking her conscience. Her affair is just one of many clods of mud about to be slung by the judge’s opponents. The enemy camp’s pivot is Ohio Republican Senator Gage (Robert John Brewer), a cross between real-life GOP senators George V. Voinovich and Lindsey Graham — a good ol’ boy with deceptively folksy charm who’s been surreptitiously funding groups that bomb abortion clinics. While the moderate, pro-privacy Senator Tildon (Timothy Starks) and his operative, Mac (Charles Pacello), perform pirouettes on behalf of the nominee (Pacello plays Mac as a mercurial lifetime bachelor who swiftly beds Reese for what could be passion or expedience, or both), Senator Gage employs his venomous henchman, Clayton Fosse (Max Williams, all buff and bluster), to suss out skeletons in Judge Barron’s very full closet of bones.
The best way to describe this play is to first rule out what it appears to be but is not, which is another episode of The West Wing. Though it traffics in the accouterments of Beltway glamour under a moderate-progressive president, its main purpose isn’t just to show the intermingling of public and private worlds. Nor is it a philosophical lynching of a flawed progressive liberal (think JFK or Bill Clinton), skewered by guilt over his own personal failings, but not guilty enough to avoid ditching his loyalists for his own advancement. (This was the premise in Jon Cellini’s The Intern, about a U.S. senator who leaves his precocious young female assistant on the tracks after their affair gets exposed.) One Fell Swoop couldn’t possibly be about the collapse of principles, because nobody here has any. Instead, characters have talking points and careers. Theirs is a game of high-speed racquetball, slamming and ducking. Senators Tilden and Gage build bridges at weekend barbecues, where they sip margaritas together before lining up for congressional scrimmage on Monday. These are people who love the game and serve nobody but themselves. Perhaps the underlying villain is campaign financing and the purchase of the political system by lobbyists, but that’s barely in this play.
The focus of Litz’s satire is the TV talk-show circuit — the mendacity, vapidity and sheer white noise of it. After working his way up from PBS and MSNBC, Wells lands a show of his own — and Armbruster plays him with a tint of glibness, a man who knows all the arguments coming and going, and believes none of them. Rather, there are people he likes and people he doesn’t. Meanwhile, Ann Coulter — ahem, make that Ann Carver — screams from the mountaintop. (Alexandra Hoover turns in a delicious vamp, as in vampire, filled with cleavage and sarcasm passing for a philosophy.)
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To say that Mortensen’s Judge Barron lacks edge sounds like a criticism, but his performance is in perfect keeping with the character’s moral vacuity. Just close your eyes and repeat his last name. As his wife, Roylance brings a brittle, Hillaryesque breadth of experience to her demurring viper of a character, and Dolan’s portrayal of Everywoman Caitlin Reese has the pleasing authenticity of being neither too glam nor simplistically heroic.
Christopher Game directs the 15-member ensemble in all corners of Joel Daavid’s metaphor-laced set. (A serpent coils around one panel of video screens, giving new meaning to “Don’t tread on me.”) Traffic control and wavering focus emerge as small directorial issues, but the heart and heartlessness of the play sustain a strong pulse.
Its nihilistic implication is that we’re in for more of the same national slippage. It doesn’t matter who’s in power. The game’s the thing. The nation is just an unfortunate playing field.
ONE FELL SWOOP | By ROBERT J. LITZ | Presented by ELEPHANT THEATRE COMPANY, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Through August 18 | (323) 960-4410