nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 29, 2012
Barack Obama figures in the title of the newest play by Mario Fratti, but he is not its subject. Instead, Obama 44, which is receiving its world premiere from Voyage Theater Company at La MaMa, is a murder mystery in which the killing of young woman is being investigated by a detective who seems to have become fascinated by her (shades of Otto Preminger's Laura?) Maja, the murder victim, was beautiful, enigmatic, and sexually active, trying out and then discarding lovers on a fairly regular basis. She was also a passionate supporter of Obama, though it seems to be her pride in the United States for voting for an African American rather than the specific beliefs and policies of this particular African American that motivate her.
What's most intriguing about Maja is her professed—and apparently genuine—commitment to honesty. At 19, she tells one of her lovers, she decided she would never tell another lie, and though she is seen in the various flashbacks that fill the play to skillfully change topics or issue deliberately vague responses, she never seems to prevaricate even once.
Surely this is one of the things that draws men to her and keeps them interested in her; her unwillingness to indulge in a certain kind of game-playing in relationships is disarming and startling. We meet two of her lovers in Obama 44: first Bob, a friend of one of Maja's own previous lovers, and then Mel, whose year-long relationship with Maja was also her last. Mel is being interrogated by a detective, and another possible suspect comes up during their conversation—Maja's brother, who turns out to be a wealthy, powerful, extremely conservative man who disapproves of Maja's politics if not her lifestyle.
So who killed Maja? The answer, unfortunately, is not as difficult to guess as I had hoped it would be. There are lots of red herring details in the script, though, that make us hungry to learn even more about Maja than we finally wind up knowing.
Wayne Maugans's direction of the play feels sluggish (I saw the first performance, so this may improve during the run), and while Julia Motyka is both charismatic and appealing as Maja, neither Thomas Poarch as Mel nor Dennis Ostermaier as Bob seemed to have enough spark or personality to hold her interest. Richard Ugino as the Detective has the play's only really overt political moment in which he talks about how he has changed his mind about Obama; this was, for me, the most compelling scene in the play. Rob Sedgwick rounds out the cast as Maja's manipulative brother.
I love that Fratti, who will be turning 85 this year, still has the passion and curiosity that has kept him writing new plays for more than five decades. I fully expect something surprising to emerge from his pen again soon.