The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the…politician.
I enjoy election years — and not only because I’m at least a somewhat concerned citizen who’s eager to exercise my small say in determining public policy. It’s also because I relish the theatricality of the election process.
Every election year, a few productions try to capitalize on the interest many of us have in election-year drama. In the past week, I’ve seen three such productions: Bedfellows at McCadden Place, The Fix at International City Theatre, and Early and Often at the Open Fist. Not surprisingly, they all focus on how politicians’ careers are affected by their personal troubles. A recently extended production I saw somewhat earlier, The Bewildered Herd, examines politics from a somewhat different angle.
All of these productions are taking place as we’re witnessing not only the usual rituals of an election year but also the beginning of the John Edwards trial — which I presume will be the subject of some stage production within a year or two after the trial concludes, if it hasn’t already happened.
Of course, it would be difficult for a playwright to come up with a fictional narrative as compelling as Edwards’ real-life story. Sometimes truth is juicier than fiction.
It might help if more playwrights avoided the easy trap of dismissing all politicians as buffoons, liars, crooks, hypocrites or otherwise unsavory people. Such cynicism can reap rich comic benefits in short-form TV comedy series, such as Saturday Night Live or The Colbert Report. But extend that viewpoint and tone into a full-length play about fictional characters, and it becomes much harder to sustain.
The best thing about Chuck Rose’s Bedfellows is that he doesn’t fall prey to this trap. He initially lets us understand why LA Mayor Sanford Mitchell is likely to become California’s next governor. As embodied by Thomas Vincent Kelly in Jack Stehlin’s staging for New American Theatre, Mitchell looks appealing enough and smart enough to be a credible candidate.
But of course you know that there will be complications, or there wouldn’t be much of a play. Suddenly an episode out of Mitchell’s past bites him in the ass, and one of his adversaries has the audio tape to prove it.
Mitchell’s handling of this awkward blast from the past might very well make his election possible — but then it might very well make his administration unravel. He’s forced into the sort of compromise that might torpedo everything he wants to accomplish.
In other words, he’s in the position of a classic tragic hero — a golden guy who’s afflicted by a flaw from two decades ago that might cause his candidacy to tumble down on top of him.
Bedfellows makes Mitchell, his dilemma and his campaign staff extremely credible and engaging, but it does veer slightly off-track in one scene in the second act. A woman who used to be the mayor’s lover — before he married someone else — appears in only this one scene for a dialogue with him about their past. As it turns out, a community program she works in has benefited from the mayor’s actions, so her feelings toward him are intriguingly bittersweet. Yet at this point in the play, it’s too late to introduce this extra character — and then never return to her. While the scene provides a little extra background on what makes Sanford run, it doesn’t fit comfortably into the otherwise realistic set of a campaign office, and it interrupts the momentum of the main plot.
Still, Bedfellows otherwise gathers enough momentum to, well, win an election or two. And how rare is it to see a play that’s set in the world of local LA politics?
The creators of The Fix and Early and Often are content to go with let’s-make-fun-of-politicians sentiments and not probe for much of anything of greater depth. Although both productions are West Coast premieres, the plays aren’t new, or local — The Fix is from the late ’90s and set in an unnamed state, while Early and Often is a 2000 play that is set in Chicago in 1960. So they don’t have the sense of immediacy that jumps off the stage from Bedfellows.
The Fix is a musical. Dana P. Rowe’s score adds a propulsive pacing and some witty turns of phrases to the show’s story of a young candidate who’s groomed by his mother and uncle to take the place of his father — after the father, in the first scene, drops dead while having sex with a younger woman, even as he’s on the verge of winning the presidency.
Of course, the young “prince” in this would-be political dynasty, Cal Chandler, is not exactly presidential timber. He’s a slacker who likes to smoke weed and strum his guitar (and, with a voice as powerful and as crystalline as the tenor of Adam Simmons in the role of Cal, music clearly would have been his best career choice).
But Cal dutifully allows his mother, his uncle and their consultants (and occasionally, the ghost of his dead father) to mold him into a supposedly viable candidate. First he does a stint in the Army — although I heard no mention of whether he has also gone to college, which is clearly a more important pre-requisite for public office than having served in the military. Then he marries a total stranger who meets the family’s idea of a proper political wife. After a crash course in the basics of obfuscating while speaking, he runs for city council as the first step in what will surely be a dramatic ascent to the top.
It’s dramatic all right, but in the worst possible ways, from the family’s point of view. The young man rises as far as the governor’s office, but he becomes ensnared with a stripper on the side, harder drugs (the title The Fix has more than one meaning), and the family’s connections to the Mafia. He even exerts his masculine charms in order to fluster his gay, grasping uncle — adding a touch of potential incest to the laundry list of Cal’s follies.
Meanwhile, John Dempsey’s book adds such unnecessary complications as a backstory about Cal’s biological father being a backwoods thug who went to the electric chair. That’s only the most literal example of overkill in The Fix.
In short, the play is flooded with too many plot twists and too many marginally satirical digs to seem remotely realistic. Instead it devolves into an over-extended musical comedy sketch, staged by Randy Brenner.
Early and Often, by Barbara Wallace and Thomas R. Wolfe, also kills off a character in the first scene — and it also has a surplus of plot twists and minor characters, including representatives of organized crime. In fact, at times it’s easy to miss the fact that the primary focus is supposed to be on Art (Bryan Bertone), a loyal lieutenant in the office of a Chicago ward boss (Bjorn Johnson). Art hopes that the state legislator who’s murdered in the first scene will nonetheless be re-elected (if not enough voters have heard that he’s dead). Then, Art figures, the ward boss will promote Art to the state legislator’s job.
Art doesn’t figure very well. The ward boss would prefer to appoint his doofus relative Dennis to the job.
Ron West’s staging gets occasional laughs — while you sense that it was intended to get nearly incessant laughs. Besides the excessively splintered focus and running time and the feeling that the farce remains on the far-fetched side, the setting a half-century ago in Chicago feels a little too remote. Probably many younger voters in LA haven’t even heard of a “ward boss.”
Of course most contemporary Americans probably have heard of “spin doctors” and “super PACs.” Cody Henderson examines an example of the former — a high-priced political consultant (John Getz) — in The Bewildered Herd, at Greenway Court.
Oddly enough, Henderson examines this character only within his own home. We never meet the politician he’s currently handling or any of the politician’s other handlers. Instead, Henderson turns his play into a glimpse of how this man and others manipulate the truth on behalf of “spin” even in their private lives, when — theoretically, at least — they aren’t being paid for it. In fact, as in Early and Often, this is a play that doesn’t have a very clear-cut leading character — the 30-year-old (Derek Manson) who’s toying with the affections of the consultant’s daughter and his wife draws our attentions away from the consultant himself.
It makes for an intriguing but somewhat unsatisfying play. By diverting the subject away from the spin doctor’s work on behalf of political and corporate clients and shining it almost exclusively on his family, the stakes feel restricted and domesticated. We’ve all seen a lot of plays about the manipulation of truth within families, but we haven’t seen nearly as many about the manipulation of truth in the contemporary political arena during the age of super PACS. As The Bewildered Herd continued, I was somewhat, yes, bewildered about why Henderson and director Laurie Woolery rejected this opportunity to give the play a harder edge.
Bedfellows, New American Theatre at McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Pl., Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, through June 2. www.NewAmericanTheatre.com. 310-701-0788.
***All Bedfellows production photos by Daniel G. Lam
The Fix, International City Theatre at Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thur-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, through May 20. www.InternationalCityTheatre.org. 562-436-4610.
***All The Fix production photos by Carlos Delgado
Early and Often, Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. through May 26. www.OpenFist.org. 323-882-6912.
The Bewildered Herd, Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Blvd., LA. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. through May 20. www.greenwayarts.tix.com. 323-655-7679, ext. 100.