Both Your Houses, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
Both Your Houses

A plague on both your houses --- Mercutio, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Mercutio's famous putdown quoted above, was aimed at the feuding families whose children's star crossed love affair fell victim to their squabblings. The houses alluded to in Maxwell Anderson's title are our country's main governing bodies, the Senate and House of Representatives. And as Anderson depicted them in the play that won him a Pulitzer Prize, they deserve this denunciation.

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More than seventy years have passed between the Theatre Guild first presented Anderson's muckraking satire at the Royale and TACT's (the Actors Company Theatre) remounting it in its concert reading format at its home at Florence Gould Hall. The current theater economy has made straight plays calling for fourteen actors virtually obsolete. But while Broadway casts have shrunk, congressional committees bills such as the one that serves as the bone of contention driving the plot of Both Your Houses are as loaded with "pork" as ever.

While the play was well received and made the author the recipient of the most prestigious playwriting prize, it had little effect on Congressional misconduct. Thus, TACT's mounting this rarely performed play is as as much cause for being sad than glad -- sad that the more things have remained the same, the more they have cost the American citizens; glad that TACT has given us a chance to hear Anderson's witty dialogue.

While Anderson, the son of a Baptist minister, was a fervent political activist since boyhood, he tended to write poetic plays more often than this type of satiric prose play. Both Your Houses is as talky as George Bernard Shaw's talkiest plays, with a very understated and minor romance interspersed into the polemical though highly entertaining dialogue. The plot revolves around the upheaval in a powerful House Appropriations Committee about to pass a bill laden with agendas designed to enrich the committee members. The thorn in their cozy club is an idealistic young congressman from Nevada -- instead of the Everyman named Mr. Smith, made famous on screen by Jimmy Stewart, Anderson's congressman is aptly named McClean. The plot's twist comes when young McClean uses his blase colleagues' own methods and so overstuffs the bill with pork that it faces defeat via Presidential veto. But the twist takes another turn, when the congressmen's greed soars to new heights and the bill is passed -- proving the most humorous of the congressional scoundrels, Solomon Fitzmaurice, right in his declaration that the working system of the government is "every man for himself, and the nation be damned."

Critical praise, the Pulitzer and responsive audiences notwithstanding, Both Your Houses did not escape criticism of its being too focused on soap box proselytizing to have much drama, a flaw not even a full-fledged staging could not offset. Thus, TACT's presentation style is probably better suited to this play than a Roundabout Theater type revival with gorgeous sets and costumes. With no set, just actors with scripts in hand and facing the audience rather than each other, we get to concentrate on what is best about this play -- its incisive and often ironically funny dialogue.

TACT has elected an able cast to deliver Anderson's smart text. Anthony Crane captures the stubborn can-do spirit of the idealistic McClean but it's James Murtagh gets the most on target lines as the hard-drinking elder statesman -- and not surprisingly, the stage comes most alive whenever he's on. Marcus Pau's original music, performed off stage by pianist Yoni Levyatov and horn player Dan Urness, provides just the right nerve jangling mood of this dark comedy.

If you read this too late to catch Both Your Houses, there's one more production scheduled to round out the season: Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore from May 6th to 8th.

Playwright: Maxwell Anderson
Directed by Michael Pressman
Cast: TACT company members Kyle Fabel, Richard Ferrone, Darrie Lawrence, James Murtaugh, James Prendergast, Scott Schafer, and Jenn Thompson and guest artists Anthony Crane, Curzon Dobell, Tara Falk, Terry Layman and Tuck Milligan.
Original Music: Marcus Paus
Lighting Design: Stacey Boggs
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission
Florence Gould Hall at the French Institute Alliance Français, 55 East 59th Street, (212) 307-4100
March 11 and 13th at t 7:30 PM; March 12 at 2 PM Tickets are nd may be purchased by calling Ticketmaster at
Tickets: $20
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/11/06 performance
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