Photo by Kimberly Glann

Before Vince Foster there was James Forrestal. Although the 1949 suicide of Forrestal, the nation’s first defense secretary, was not then the subject of much media scrutiny, today it has moved to the troubled and troubling periphery of what British historian Peter Knight calls America’s “conspiracy culture.” Depending on whose blog you read, Forrestal — whose broken body was discovered below his 16th-floor Bethesda Naval Hospital suite — may have been pushed by CIA agents alarmed by his knowledge of UFOs, by Israelis concerned with his anti-Zionist positions or by the KGB lashing out at a chief architect of Soviet containment. There are even those who accept the traditional belief that Forrestal, worn by exhaustion and bruised by debilitating policy fights with the Pentagon, succumbed to the paranoid dementia that increasingly clouded his reason and simply leaped from his room.

Playwright Ken Urban wisely goes with the jumper scenario. Adding flying saucers to his story about Forrestal might have broken the design budget for Moving Arts, which is running Urban’s The Absence of Weather at the Los Angeles Theater Center. The 70-minute one-act unfolds in a hospital room in which time and locales constantly shift and intersect. As a colliding soundtrack composed of Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call” and dissonant electronica fades out, we find Forrestal (Alexander Wells) lying in bed, a spent figure wearing a paisley robe. In fact, the only reminder of Forrestal’s membership in Washington’s power culture is, perhaps, his gray pinstripe pajamas.

A mysterious patient (Tristan Wright) sleeps in a neighboring bed, then slips off the mattress to become a younger Forrestal in happier times — first as a Princeton student and then as a partner at the banking firm of Dillon, Read and Co. Forrestal, an Irish-American Catholic, entered the citadels of old money through Dartmouth and Princeton, then through Wall Street. According to Urban’s play, whatever social frost Forrestal may have encountered from WASPs quickly melted in the warmth of conversational anti-Semitism and a shared hatred of communism. As biographical details pour out, an insular, workaholic profile takes shape through Forrestal’s lifelong friendship with school chum Ferdinand Eberstadt (Jeffrey Landman), along with Forrestal’s icy misogyny and profound emotional detachment from people in general.

Still, we watch as shy Forrestal matures into a hard-charging financial titan, eventually marrying — but hardly settling down with — Vogue writer Josephine Ogden (Jodie Schell), a Jazz Age baby who shared Forrestal’s taste for partying and disdain for convention. You don’t have to read between the lines of Urban’s dialogue to sense that the couple’s life together on Long Island was not exactly Rockwellian.

“Do you want to lick some cunt, Jim?” a sexually frustrated and jealous Jo repeatedly taunts her philandering husband in one scene. Indeed, Forrestal seems to have been capable of maintaining loyalty only to his male friends — his friendship with Eberstadt comes off here as a platonically gay relationship. Though occasionally nagged by his aloof treatment of Jo and their children, Forrestal still ascends the success ladder: Tapped by Franklin Roosevelt to be a special White House assistant, he eventually becomes Secretary of the Navy and, under Harry Truman, heads defense. During his last years in power, Forrestal oversees the National Security Act and advocates a bare-knuckled response to Soviet expansionism.

Urban never lets us forget two things: That Forrestal was deeply affected by the carnage he witnessed during a visit to Iwo Jima, and that his paranoias were never far from the surface.

“Bastard Jews, fucking commies!” he rants early on, while occasionally footage of a Red Square parade appears on a scrim above his bed, like a feverish thought bubble.

Such moments help explain Forrestal’s commitment to reforming America’s defense establishment and to creating a forceful new policy toward the Soviets — all the while his social and political prejudices are metastasizing into mental illness. Following a furtive outreach to Truman’s presidential rival, Thomas Dewey, Urban’s Forrestal is removed from office, after which he unsuccessfully attempts suicide before he is checked in for psychiatric care at Bethesda, where his fall from grace becomes literal.

THE ABSENCE OF WEATHER is a complex, sprawling tale delivered in a compact, presentational format by director Mark Seldis. Five actors play a dozen characters on a relatively spare set by Paul DeDoes and, in a smart touch by costumer Meghan Wincor, white hospital trousers that are worn by some ensemble members stylishly contrast with the yachting blazers they wear when appearing as figures in Forrestal’s moneyed milieu.

Still, most of the cast gives the impression of being penned in by the stage’s constricted boundaries — this is a story in which dialogue needs to be shouted and martini glasses thrown, but there just isn’t the room for that here. Wells does show some authority in his role as the elder Forrestal, but Wright is a little too tenuous to foreshadow the man he will become.

Weather is a short play that feels longer, though not necessarily in a bad sense — Urban is trying to pack a lot of biography into a small space while tying it up with literary ribbon provided by a historical factoid — Forrestal’s last diary entry, written moments before he died, was a copying out of Sophocles’ poem “Chorus From Ajax.” He ended his transcription in midword — “nightingale,” which had also been Forrestal’s operational code name for one of his more secretive projects while at defense, a plan to recruit former pro-Nazi Ukrainians to harass and assassinate Soviet communists.

Urban uses Forrestal’s Greek side to good effect, especially by suggesting that the defense secretary saw himself as a warrior, like Ajax, made insane by Olympian forces beyond his control. For although Urban sticks to a straightforwardly poetic explanation for Forrestal’s descent into madness, there were many more mundane ingredients that played a hand besides his fondness for Attic verse and visions of Red Square parades.

Not mentioned in the play, understandably enough, is that most of these had to do with long-forgotten bureaucratic wars fought after WWII ended. Forrestal, opposed to unifying the armed forces under a single department, was forced by Truman to implement this very program. An old navy man himself, he also found himself on the losing end of battles with the air force over its custody of the nation’s nuclear arsenal and funding of the B-36 bomber instead of the fleet of naval super-carriers he dreamed of.

And there were the stories spread by columnists Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson about Forrestal’s anti-Semitism and reds-under-the-bed paranoia. While some pro-Forrestal revisionists today dispute accounts of his dislike of Jews, the defense secretary’s fear of Soviet attack has passed into near-pop-cultural legend. His purported “the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming” utterance became the title for a 1966 film comedy, and it’s not too much to find a bit of Forrestal in the unhinged General Jack D. Ripper of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

The strength of Urban’s play is that he is able to move Forrestal beyond such caricature; its chief shortcoming is that he cannot elevate him to the status of American demigod, even though the material certainly is there. If Forrestal’s life sounds like Mr. Gatsby Goes to Washington, Urban tries to humanize him through Jo’s alcoholic decline and her own mental breakdown. The problem is that Forrestal proves so indifferent to her fate that when he numbly watches her wheeled to an electroshock treatment, he may as well be seeing off Ethel Rosenberg to the chair.

Our ambivalence toward Forrestal is guaranteed because this play never captures the tumultuous historical rhythm of its time (not easily done in the sanctuary of a hospital room) nor achieves a narrative velocity that engages us. By play’s end, our judgments of Forrestal, if we had any, will not change. He remains the man who did not so much recognize the Soviet threat as create it, whose policy of Soviet containment morphed into the disastrous rollback programs of the 1950s. Perhaps James Forrestal had simply outlived his time to become another Wall Street banker jumping out of a window, albeit long after the crash.

THE ABSENCE OF WEATHER | By KEN URBAN | Moving Arts at LATC, 514 S. Spring St., downtown | Through March 27 | (213) 622-8906

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