nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
August 17, 2007
Governor Karen Werthman is running for president in a hotly contested race. The widow of a career politician who died amidst scandal under his own watch, Karen came to politics reluctantly but has since discovered she genuinely loves serving her constituents. Her tendency to go off-script and speak from the heart exasperates Miranda, her win-at-all-costs campaign manager. Meanwhile, her estranged son Simon has removed himself from the realm of realpoitik, and lectures on political theory at Princeton. But his affair with a provocative, perhaps dangerous student not only gets him thrown out of the ivory tower but also threatens to destroy his mother's campaign. Simon, followed by his student Elizabeth, and, eventually, political opponent Senator Bill Graber return to the Werthman home to manage this complicated, behind-the-scenes imbroglio.
The headline-inspired plot may sound topical on the surface, but author Karl Gajdusek aims to undertake a deeper, more philosophical exploration of contemporary political behavior than our media care to give. At first, the storyline seems to provide an organic framework for inquiry, but the density of ideas ultimately overpowers the clarity—and urgency—of the storytelling. The characters seem less interested in achieving power than in understanding—or at least discussing—power as an abstract phenomenon. In the midst of crisis, they debate aspects of political theory—the role of control versus chance in historical outcomes, the relation between gender and power, the complex nature of "spin," how quantum physics theories apply to politics—peppering their ideas with quotes from their favorite historical speeches.
I left uncertain about what the central debate of play is supposed to be. I appreciate that Gajdusek doesn't want to give us answers, but it's hard to say which are the important questions. The play feels at once too wordy and too elliptical—the characters articulate a multitude of intriguing positions and perspectives on politics, but I'm not sure how they all add up, and/or ultimately, which ideas really matter.
The lack of clarity is most problematic in Simon, the central character of the play. While most of the action occurs at his family home, post-Princeton scandal, flashback scenes of his affair with Elizabeth offer provocative glimpses into the sexual politics of the teacher-student affair, asking: who is victimizing who? Who will win? What is the price for this affair? Neither of the characters ultimately reveals what they really want, and Simon's motivations are obscure throughout the entire play. Is he unconsciously using this affair to sabotage his mother's campaign? Why does he return home, despite his ambivalence toward his parent's political career? What does he want for himself? In the first preview, Chris Henry Coffey's portrayal of Simon seemed tentative. Frequently pausing before many of his lines, it seemed like he needed to think through each response before speaking. I suspect that the script's ambiguity is causing the actor to feel adrift, but the absence of a clear drive from this central role makes the action feel slack and vague.
Nevertheless, Coffey and the entire cast turn in committed, thoughtful performances—clearly they are giving their all to this material. Though the pacing felt slow at the first performance, hopefully it will pick up as the run goes on. As Elizabeth, the coed who may be Simon's savior or else his destroyer, Sarah-Doe Osborne seduces with youthful allure. Joy Franz conveys both the polish and the heart of Governor Werthman. Caralyn Kozlowski's Miranda has intelligence and force, though her drive becomes a bit shrill in the second half of the play. Ray McDavitt's turn as Karen's political opponent is pitch-perfect; suavely charming us with his molasses Southern drawl, but on the turn of a dime revealing vicious self-interest.
Genesius Theatre Group, who mounted the production with South Arc Productions, recently shifted its emphasis from developing new work towards giving new plays full productions. The reformulated mission—"rescuing new plays and musicals from the endless cycle of reading and workshops"—offers great benefit to playwrights and audiences alike. Under Andrew Volkoff's direction, each aspect of this production displays a commitment to realize the script with great integrity. Design staff Brian Prather (set), Sarah Smith (costumes), and Jim Milkey (lighting) create a convincing and handsome atmosphere of power and prestige. With strong production values, it seems fair game to evaluate how this play lives up to GTG's promise to present "the most talented writers NYC has even seen." I'd venture that some audiences will enjoy the density and ambiguity of the piece, while I was disappointed by its unwillingness to define the rules of the game. Still, like the democratic process it aims to explore, the play asks each of us cast our own vote.