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Fucking the Government

Curry (left) and Cicchini: Sources, methods (Photo by Jeannine Stehlin)

As the Republican moon wanes and a majority of Americans finally seem to understand that we’ve squandered hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives in Iraq, the first question one wants to ask playwright Shem Bitterman is why he thinks the false pretense of our invasion is an interesting premise for his new drama, MAN.GOV (premiering in a production by Circus Theatricals at the Hayworth).

Yeah, we know a mushroom cloud that Saddam Hussein was going to set off was the first in a series of discredited rationales for starting a war in the wrong country, if, that is, we were seriously concerned about protecting ourselves from nuclear annihilation, terrorism and the architects of 9/11. So why see yet another play about the sexed-up intel, the lies? As though nobody saw David Hare’s Stuff Happens or Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11,as though it’s news that Iraq’s WMDs were figments of a fantasy.

Actually, Bitterman’s is an interesting premise — not because of the outrage, which is getting really tiresome, but because of the way it toys with truth and consequences, from the question of what’s right and wrong to the more expansive plane of what’s real and unreal, particularly when it comes to the question of how the “evidence” our arms inspectors did or didn’t uncover in Iraq was fixed to fit an agenda. That fix is why everything has gone so tragically wrong: What’s real inexorably crushes what’s wished for. But if the goal of a new play is to issue a challenge, to let us see things fresh or even from a slightly new angle, MAN.GOV falls short. It conforms to almost everything we already know, which is why the play appears at first to be a large play and concludes as a small one. But that doesn’t detract from its smart, lean dialogue, its taut construction and the economy with which it unveils some profoundly complex and revelatory characters. Bitterman is well served by very good actors and Spartan staging by Steve Zuckerman that concentrates its focus on the text.

In the play, set during the buildup to the second U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, an American arms inspector, David G. (Christopher Curry), observes his “fashionably embittered” daughter, Laura (Britt Napier), reading the best-selling essays of a journalist-provocateur named Graylin James (Robert Cicchini). James is a cross between Michael Moore and Bob Woodward, though the comparatively squeamish Woodward only challenged Bush when national polls finally turned against the prez. James possesses a blend of Woodward’s highly placed sources and Moore’s indignation and mothlike ability to place himself in the klieg lights of any television news program.

James’ book, America in the Age of Unreason, fascinates Laura, which is enough to infuriate her dad. She’s an only child of divorced parents, fiercely intelligent, emotionally cynical, self-loathing, sexually promiscuous, and she finds herself attached to James’ essays because they display moral conviction and a deep distrust of authority — the two qualities most lacking in her father. He’s a government man nearing retirement who writes reports that superiors then alter, and nobody reads them anyway because they’re classified.

As though jealous of any man who can earn his daughter’s respect, Dave slams down James’ book in disgust. Why doesn’t he do his research? Dave fumes, before a subepidermal rage slowly surfaces, a rage against the indignity of the censorship — and self-censorship — of his report from Iraq. In that report, he embroidered his firsthand observation of “nothing there” to the ruminative conclusion that “no WMDs” is one of several conclusions that could be drawn from his findings. Though his personal view is that there’s no threat, that doesn’t exclude the possibility of a threat. From this ontological loop, bombs will soon start dropping. This is why his daughter despises him.

James’ book intoxicates Dave with a murky sense of conscience; he speaks off-the-record to James at a bar, and shortly after, we see James bluster on TV about the candid assessments of a high-level arms inspector. Dave is then horrified to learn that he’s been outed as James’ source. Faster than you can say “regime change,” there’s a congressional investigation of the trumped-up reasons for war and Dave is issued a subpoena, and that’s when the feds, in the form of Henry (Thomas Kopache), come knocking at Dave’s door, ordering him to keep his mouth shut.

Kopache’s Henry is a lean, balding man who, in this context, looks slightly cadaverous, which makes Laura’s sexual seduction of him all the more perverse, and truthful. Is this just another manifestation of her self-contempt — she’s the one who despises authority figures — or is she trying to protect her family, or both? She loathes Henry, yet she fucks him — her father’s boss — on a chair. Outside the hotel room, he’s got the power; inside, she’s in charge.

“Are you trying to insult me?” he asks after one of her many postcoital derogatory remarks about their sex. “No,” she replies, “just myself.” Sweet.

Bitterman based MAN.GOV on the brutal experiences of British arms inspector David Kelly, found dead after being outed as the source for the report that Tony Blair “sexed up” to make the case for war; and American William Scott Ritter, who, after criticizing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, was swiftly accused of being an agent for Iraq while the FBI investigated his wife for being a KGB spy.

It bears some resemblance to Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo — which is about the Renaissance scientist trying to prove to church authorities that the Earth spins around the sun, not the other way around, and the way he’s punished for questioning an orthodoxy based on a misconception that he can prove empirically. Going into the theater, almost everyone is already convinced of Galileo’s argument, so the play isn’t really a mystery about what’s true but a theatrical sermon about what’s right — a pamphlet advocating the necessity and the costs of (as Janeane Garofalo keeps intoning on Air America) telling truth to power. It doesn’t invite us to question much about what’s real and unreal — on that everyone agrees — but rather to wag our finger at the folly, hubris and cruelty of the authorities. Galileo was first produced right here in L.A., in 1948, following the last war that we actually won, which is among the reasons we believed our government implicitly. For this reason, it served up a strikingly brave challenge to our presumptions.

Since then, the perceived rectitude of our foreign policy, and the credibility of government statements, has crashed and burned in the jungles of Vietnam and Latin America, in the swamps of Louisiana, and in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq. Americans’ confidence in our government’s willingness to tell the truth now runs between 30 and 40 percent. When we walk into MAN.GOV, we have a clear sense of what’s real and unreal, who’s right and wrong, and Bitterman raises little challenge to those presumptions. The play is, however, redeemed by its characters and the force of their intelligence: Dave’s identity crisis as he plunges from arrogance to exile; Laura’s scathing perversity, rendered by Napier with a stoic, brooding wit. Jordan Lund plays Dave’s take-the-money-and-run colleague, Mitch, with haughty pragmatism; Cicchini’s journalist comes off as ruefully self-satisfied, hiding Dave’s identity without really hiding it, in an interpretation that underscores the self-serving damage he’s about to inflict on the tormented arms inspector. There’s also a pleasing performance by Stephanie Erb as Dave’s current wife, a kind of Virgil guiding him, without much success, around the land mines set by both his daughter and the feds.

Maybe it’s strange to ask a play to be less sure of itself. Edward Albee once said that he writes plays to figure out why he’s writing them, which explains the sense of wonder that rides alongside his works, as if in a sidecar. MAN.GOV is ostensibly about truth, but its efforts to pry truth open are constricted by its certainty, and the way it aligns with ours. There’s little wonder in that, but there is a good, little play.?

MAN.GOV | By SHEM BITTERMAN | Presented by CIRCUS THEATRICALS at the HAYWORTH, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Through November 18 | (323) 960-1054 or www.circustheatricals.com

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