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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Absence of Weather
By David Avery

When we switched from a policy of war to a policy of defense, I was the man for the job.
---Forrestal, referring to the United States government's shifting priorities in the latter half of the 20th century.
Tristan Wright and Alexander Wells, as Forrestal
Tristan Wright & Alexander Wells, as the younger and older Forrestal
James Forrestal is one of those people who was very important in his time, but is quickly forgotten by history. I doubt if nine people out of ten people could tell you who he was and what he did.

Briefly, Forrestal was the first Secretary of Defense (under Truman), and one of the main architects of the Cold War mentality of American foreign policy. He vigorously fought against recognizing and supporting a Jewish state, and warned insistently about the dangers of communism. He worked with George F. Kennan to lay out a policy of "containment" of Soviet influence. Along with Ferdinand Eberstadt, he is credited with creating the National Security Council (NSC).

Eventually, due to the pressures of his position, Forrestal had a nervous breakdown. He also began having paranoid delusions of being spied on and followed (which interestingly proved to be true. According to declassified MOSSAD documents Israel really did have him followed over concerns of secret agreements with Arab nations). He spent the final months of his life in a mental hospital, and allegedly committed suicide by throwing himself out of a sixteenth story window. There has been much speculation as to whether he had some help in this act, with suspects ranging from CIA operatives, various Soviet operatives, and even UFOs.

Ken Urban's The Absence of Weather is a one-act portrayal of Forrestal's last day in a mental institution. It , reviews his life and the people he knew. Surprisingly, it doesn't dwell on the more lurid explanations of his death and instead focuses on Forrestal's character as a public figure.

The play starts with Forrestal (Alexander Wells) in his bleak hospital room at Bethesda Naval Hospital, addressing the audience. He delivers introductions with crisp efficiency, stating last name first, as though reading a military dossier. We are introduced to his younger self James (Tristan Wright), his future wife Josephine (Jodie Schell), and his contemporaries Kennan (Dale Duko) and Eberstadt (Jeffrey Landsman). The audience is taken through his early years at Princeton, through his middle life as a bond salesman, and into his public service career with FDR and Truman. It is, at its core, a death bed confession.

The problem is that this play focuses too much on events and ideas, and not enough on its characters. Urban is trying to relate the "red scare," anti-communist fervor of Forrestal's time to the same sorts of messages and ideas being put forth in today's, hyper-vigilant, anti-terrorist times. While this is intriguing (though not particularly novel) he fails to engage the audience with a portrayal of the man. We are instead treated to a series of vignettes designed to use Forrestal's past as a means for understanding why he was the way he was.

Unfortunately, the complications of post WWII military structure are bit much to cover in a single act, and I suspect that many patrons had to do some post-play Googling to get a sense of just what was going on. The actors end up being little more than vehicles for recreating past events, not unlike much derided TV flashbacks. Listening to Forrestal's explanation of events is much more interesting that watching them re-enacted.

Absence works best when it focuses on Forrestal and his tragedy, and less on a class-like lecture on his life. An extended sequence linking Forrestal to the tragic character of Ajax in Sophocles' play (apparently Forrestal's favoritey) is where the play hits its stride -- the idea that he could love the play so much, yet not be able to apply its lessons to his own life. Another instance is when a famous road rage incident is described, and Forrestal is asked which of the characters he identifies with. His answer is unique and surprising. Wells' portrays Forrestal as a man with many regrets, and a lot of hubris, yet still determined to "set the record straight."

There are some nice directing choices by Mark Seldis, starting with the use of a backlit screen that reveals characters, and doubles as an actual movie screen for old news footage. Added to this is the use of a small cast in multiple roles -- the hospital attendants and patients double as the people from Forrestal's past, giving the feeling that Forrestal's mind is using everyday familiarity to reconstruct events in his life. Meghan Wincor nicely flips her characters from hospital attendants to bluebloods with a mere jacket and tie. The stark set design by Paul DeDoes looks like a mental patient's room, white and bare. But the layout of the set contributes to the disconnect of the characters from the audience which is split in half by the entrance to the theatre; thus, when Forrestal addresses us, he is forced to pick one side of the room or the other, and exclude half the room from his musings.

At one point in the play, Kennan says to Forrestal, "No one likes to go to the theater and see anything that smacks of the university or the museum." Urban should listen to the complaint of his own character.

The Absence of Weather
Written by Ken Urban
Directed by Mark Seldis
Cast: Dale Duko (Kennan/Nurse/Ajax), Jeffrey Landman (Eberstadt/Orderly/Ajax), Jodie Schell (Josephine/Young Woman/Ajax), Alexander Wells (Forrestal), Tristan Wright (Patient/James)
Set Design: Paul DeDoes
Costume Design: Meghan Wincor
Lighting Design: Chris Wojcieszyn
Sound Design: Mike Peters
Running time: approximately 1 hour, 15 minutes (no intermission)
Moving Arts @ the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., LA, CA 90013
From 2/26/05 to 3/27/05
Fridays/Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 2pm
Tickets $15 ($12 Seniors/Students w/ID)
Reviewed by David Avery based on 2/26/05 performance
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