Battlefields of the Heart

13th Jul 2009

Reviews of 5 plays at the 2009 Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Farragut North
★★★½

Stephen Bellamy, the protagonist in Beau Willimon’s “Farragut North” — onstage at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va. — could be any of the young denizens who joined Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and have since descended upon Washington to change the world.
A fresh-faced 25-year-old spokesman for a Democratic presidential campaign, he’s starry-eyed about the candidate who’s primed to win the Iowa caucuses.

Stephen’s boss Paul Zara is a grizzled political veteran with many more years on the trail. But age hasn’t dampened his idealism. He speaks of the campaign he’s running as a “revolution” that will “take back the country.”

These men aren’t total innocents; both have experience in the proverbial making of political sausage. But even then they exhibit a love for electoral gamesmanship. In the play’s opening scene, Stephen shows off his strategic acumen when he recounts the time he won a Senate race by blowing up a rival candidate’s offhand remark into a full-bore controversy over anti-Semitism after he called his Jewish boss a “putzhead” (something that former Sen. Alphonse D’Amato, New York Republican, actually called his Democratic successor, Sen. Charles E. Schumer).

Stephen faces a test of faith when he receives a phone call from Tom Duffy, a strategist on another campaign with a Southern drawl only slightly more discernable than James Carville’s. Stephen knows that his career could be ruined if anyone found out about his clandestine meeting with a rival operative, but he’s intrigued and meets Duffy anyway. There, Duffy claims to have orchestrated a scheme by which he’s managed to get thousands of his own candidate’s Iowa supporters to lie to pollsters and say that they actually plan to vote for Stephen’s boss. This way, Duffy explains, the ostensible front-runner will get complacent, his own candidate gains underdog status, and the ensuing upset victory will look all the more stunning. Duffy wants Stephen to defect.

The decisions Stephen makes during the following day take a toll on his political romanticism. Confronted with the choice of staying loyal to his candidate and losing or abandoning him for the winner, he takes a nebulous middle ground that leaves Paul doubting his loyalty, which, the elder operative says, “in politics, is the only currency you get.” Soon, Stephen’s precociousness morphs into naivete. No longer is he the cocksure flack regaling others with campaign war stories. He’s now a frightened, disillusioned kid.

Eric Sheffer Stevens plays Steve with a mix of verve and vulnerability, credibly portraying a hungry politico who’s on top of the world one night and rejects everything he once believed in the next. Anthony Crane’s Paul, who wins us over with a sentimental story about his first campaign and the importance of sticking by your friends when the chips are down, brings to mind many of the foul-mouthed yet hopelessly idealistic political strategists who populate this town.

Aside from the implausibility of Duffy’s machinations, the characters and dialogue in “Farragut North” are utterly convincing. The play will appeal to political junkies and cynics alike, as it explores themes that exist beyond the Metro stations of downtown Washington: loyalty, trust and just how far people will go to advance themselves — and destroy those who stand in their way.

Yankee Tavern
★★

Politics of a more marginal sort are the subject of Steven Dietz’s “Yankee Tavern,” which profiles the American obsession with conspiracy theories. Adam (also played by Eric Sheffer Stevens), is a graduate student writing a dissertation on the variety of explanations that arose to explain the events of Sept. 11, 2001. He moonlights as a bartender at the wood-paneled Brooklyn tavern his deceased father owned, where he’s joined by Ray (Anderson Matthews, in a hilarious performance that channels the physical likeness of Peter Falk and the pathetic sagacity of Falstaff), a man who seems to have a tin foil hat permanently affixed to his head.

Ray was the best friend of Adam’s father, who committed suicide shortly after the destruction of the World Trade Center. Adam tolerates Ray, providing him with a bottomless bar tab. Ray’s rants, however, eventually verge from the innocuous to the disturbing once he starts questioning the official narrative of Sept. 11. Adam’s academic work has convinced him that conspiracies undermine people’s trust in government, a phenomenon that began after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

In light of this high-minded denunciation of political occultism, it comes as little surprise that Adam has decided to pursue a career in national security. He’s bound for a series of interviews in Washington alongside a Farsi-speaking former professor whom his fiancee, Janet, suspects is more than just a mentor. The play takes on a completely different tone in the second act, when a mysterious stranger who made a brief appearance at the tavern earlier returns to find Janet minding the bar. He tells her of a nebulous plot involving Adam, his professor and a secret computer disk, the circumstances of which are pivotal to the play’s plot, yet hard to follow. This confusion is deliberate; Mr. Dietz is no longer entertaining and enlightening us. He’s playing with us.

What started as a cheeky comedy in the first act has by the second become an improbable thriller with very little to laugh about.
It’s not clear whether Mr. Dietz is ridiculing conspiracy theories, lending them credence or trying to make some other point about our “enormous capacity for belief,” in Ray’s words. Ideas that Mr. Dietz initially mocked no longer seem so derisory by curtain’s end.

Fifty Words
★★★½
Adam and Jan, a successful 30-something New York couple whose marriage is the battlefield in Michael Weller’s “Fifty Words,” are spending their first night alone together in nine years.

That lack of quality time is partly due to the needs of their troubled son Greg, who is having his first sleepover on the evening we encounter them in their apartment, where Adam is preparing to leave on one of his frequent business trips. Adam and Jan’s naughty sexual banter, however, masks deep wounds that neither partner has been willing to confront – until tonight.

Adam, who amus es us with tales of his own delinquent childhood, is unconcerned by Greg’s misanthropic behavior, which has led to problems at his upscale private school. His permissiveness leads Jan, who epitomizes the uptight Manhattan mother, to accuse him of parental delinquency (“I need you to be a grown-up,” she orders). A revelation of infidelity, a stream of insults and rough sex ensues.

Jan, who gave up on her hopes of becoming a professional dancer to join the rat race, has since come to the conclusion that her life with Adam is a sham, “a marriage constructed around just a child.” Adam – who tries his best with a shrill and capricious wife – is the more sympathetic character, to the point that his unfaithfulness, if not morally defensible, at least makes sense. The play, staged in the round at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W. Va., takes place entirely in the couple’s sleek kitchen, whose implements serve alongside words as weapons.

Despite the awful things they say to each other over the course of two acts, it’s nonetheless evident why these characters – brought vividly to life by Anthony Crane and Joey Parsons – originally fell in love, and we’re invested in their attempts to recapture that original spark. That’s a credit to Mr. Weller, who has updated the template of the spousal domestic drama exemplified by Edward Albee in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In both plays, the characters try to outdo one another in verbal warfare (“You can say just about anything when you know there’s no future,” Jan tells Adam), and an unseen child is a source of marital discord.

When Jan tells Adam that marriage is simply the least worst option for “two people who aren’t good enough to go it alone,” it hits us with disturbing veracity. With this dreary assertion, Mr. Weller cuts to the eternal core of romantic coupling.

Dear Sara Jane

Marriage is the template of “Dear Sara Jane,” a one-act, one-woman play featuring a pixieish woman (Joey Parsons again) whose husband Jerry is off killing Arabs in some faraway land. The notion that the Bush war on terror was a mere pretext for the fulfillment of deep-seated aggressive impulses endemic to American culture is the reductively psychological message of playwright Victor Lodato, who wants to let us know that he really, really, really hates war.

Sara Jane is a caricature of the red-state army wife. “They say some of the children are terrorists too,” she informs the audience, after recounting a series of disturbing war-zone photographs she saw. Meanwhile, her mother, a woman proud of her family’s long line of veterans – “war people,” in the words of Sara Jane – is a victim of many plastic surgeries and a racist whose foreign policy is “to kill every last one of them.” She stands in contrast to Sara Jane’s troubled yet virtuous sister (played by Ms. Parsons donning a trench coat and messy wig), a bag lady who rants about the horrors of war.

Jerry has a penchant for sadomasochism that he’s taken with him to the battlefield, where he executed a civilian and mailed the skull home to Sara Jane as a trophy. “He’s always had an animal nature,” she tells us. Mr. Lodato’s point seems to be that Americans are an inherently violent people, that our violence is a perverse consequence of our sexual desires, and that we sow destruction wherever our imperialist impulses take us.

“Dear Sara Jane” isn’t just anti-Iraq war, like umpteen other polemics masquerading as dramas in recent years, but unreflectingly pacifist, and it exudes all the rank stupidities and moral preening that that naive ideology entails.

“How can I want it one way in the bedroom and another way out there?” Sara Jane asks. Such questions are best left to third-rate sociology professors, not serious dramatists.

History of Light
★★★

In Eisa Davis’ “History of Light” marriage proves elusive for Soph, a 30-something black musician who pines for her childhood friend and the only man she ever loved, Math, a white businessman. The play’s dramatic action hinges upon the efforts of Susan, a white, aging radical and former girlfriend of Soph’s absent father, Turner, whom Soph has never met. Out of the blue, Susan sends Soph a series of old love letters penned by her father and recounts her all-too-short romance with him during the heady and dangerous days of the civil rights movement.

Ms. Davis charts Soph and Math’s romantic dance, from their playing capture the flag on the middle school playground to an angry spectacle in a fancy restaurant, where Math rejects her proposal of matrimony. Concomitant with the pain of Math’s rebuff, however, is the joy of Turner’s rejoining her life.

The playwright doesn’t beat us over the head with questions of race, though her leftist politics do occasionally get in the way of accurate storytelling (it was Democrats, and not Republicans – as Ms. Davis would have us believe – who attempted to filibuster the Civil Rights Act. Certainly more than a few West Virginians in the audience remembered that local favorite Sen. Robert C. Byrd led the effort).

In a competent cast, Amelia Workman is a revelation as Sophie. When she tells Math at the end of the play that “everyone I’ve been with is a band aid for you,” we believe her, which is the most we can want from an actor.

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