Film footage of Jacqueline Kennedy cradling the head of husband John F. Kennedy in an open limousine in Dallas after he'd been felled by rifle shots remains enshrined in the memories of the generation that lived through it. That, along with CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite's lugubrious report on national TV that the president had died, and that power was being transferred to Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Theories abound whether this was all the work of the single gunman accused of the crime, Lee Harvey Oswald — who was famously shot to death during a jailhouse transfer within 48 hours of his arrest — or a conspiracy.
Kennedy had ordered what became the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of communist Cuba, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis taunted the Soviets into removing nuclear missiles from the island.
Oswald was a member of the political advocacy organization Fair Play for Cuba who had traveled to the Soviet Union to visit the family of his Russian wife.
The lone-gunman case, though hardly conclusive, is nonetheless easy to make, and playwright Dennis Richard pretty much makes it in his play Oswald: The Actual Interrogation, presented by Write Act Repertory Theatre in its West Coast premiere.
Based on the notes of Dallas Police Captain Will Fritz (P. David Miller) taken during his interrogation of Oswald (Andrew Perez) before the suspect was shot, the play is like a Texas noir Dragnet. We're invited to watch Oswald's defiance, denials and cooperation, as Fritz attempts to “break” the suspect into a confession without a trace of physical intimidation — though Oswald's bruises, cuts and black eye broadcast some manhandling by the cops before he arrived in the captain's office.
This could, and should, be fascinating stuff, and would be were Perez's Oswald not so obviously blustering in the face of mounting evidence against him (an old photograph of him cradling a rifle he'd just said he had no affinity for, his wallet found near the body of Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit, who also was killed on Nov. 22, 1963, and witnesses placing him near the scene of the crime). Oswald makes the point that all of the evidence could have been rigged by the cops or the FBI, yet in performance he gives the impression of a slightly crazed liar. His persistent demands for a lawyer go ignored, yet he keeps answering questions, thereby deflating the inherent tension derived from seeking out information from reluctant suspects.
If this is a cat-and-mouse game, the cat wins with no contest, despite the equivocating Oswald's refusal to confess with a clear political motive, or to provide a credible alibi.
So the play is neither a rebuttal to the official reports of the assassination, nor a psychological drama fueled by social rage, as in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. It enigmatically suggests that Oswald was framed, but doesn't resolve the issue, and this mystery genre calls for getting to the bottom of something. Oswald's murder leaves the play's suggestions hanging in the air.
Richmond Shepard directs the capable cast, who play sundry detectives (Dan Burkarth and David Lee Garver), an FBI agent (William Kidd) seeking jurisdiction, and the judge (Ryan John McGivern), who, redefining the term “kangaroo court,” arraigned Oswald on two separate charges in the police interrogation room instead of in a court. Yet the staging, like the writing, keeps circling the same platform on which the interrogation unfolds.
Why Jack Ruby killed Oswald remains another unexplored mystery. —Steven Leigh Morris
OSWALD: THE ACTUAL INTERROGATION | By Dennis Richard | Presented by Write Act Repertory Theatre, 6128 Yucca St., Hlywd. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. | Through Feb. 19 | (323) 469-3113 | plays411.com/oswald