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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
To live up to its tag as a political thriller, a new for him genre, Baitz based his futuristic look at a group of Americans in the year 2030 on the ancient board game known as Chinese Friends and alternatively as Reversi or Othelllo. Its strategy is to take control of the board by outflanking your opponent until his or her options are gone and the winner controls all four corners.
Baitz's concept is interesting but the execution is too artificial. He posits that another four years of George W. Bush's policies will leave the country and the world in a mess beyond fixing. By the time the more humanistically inclined politicians regain the White House, people are unwilling to accept their remedies. And so, as the play begins, things have gone from horrible to horrendous.
The children whose birth coincided with the age of national dysfunction feel the only hope for redemption is to throw out everything that smacks of organized power. On the other hand, some of their elders, as represented by one-time humanist policy wonk named Arthur Brice (Peter Strauss), now feel that the time is ripe for the public that rejected them and their solutions to welcome them back with open arms.
Brice would also like to re-establish contact with the son Ajax (Tyler Francavilla) and, for reasons that will link his public and private story, has offered to pay a substantial sum for a tape the young man's mother made before her death. When Ajax arrives at the isolated New England cottage where Brice has been living in contemplative but comfortable exile accompanied by two companions, Brice is immediately outnumbered and in a position of having to defend himself against not only his hostile son, but the even angrier Stephan (James Latus) and Alegra (Athena Gam).
Though ultimately, and despite some snappy dialogue and numerous surprises, the two hour cat and mouse game adds up to a disappointingly go-nowhere debate, it's sure to leave your head whirling with your own what ifs. Actually, the situation that pits an older man against the younger generation's opposing views is not a conflict creating strategy for Mr. Baitz. His two much better and more polished plays, Substance of Fire and Ten Unknowns, also had an older man outnumbered by the younger generation and defending his views. As the publisher of Substance of Fire and the painter in Ten Unknowns were outmoded and flawed Chinese Friends has an out of fashion arrogant Washington insider, a man who's certain that his political vision should not remain buried in history's dustbin. Baitz's willingness to look unblinkingly at bankuptcy in both the family and the world also has precedent in his 1991 The End of the Day.
The thriller aura is established by an atmospheric opening which has the three young people pulling up at the dock of Brice's cottage in a row boat and dressed in rags that Brice archly and aptly declares makes them look like "passion play dress extras." Obediah Eaves' erie music, the ragged appearance of the visitors and the rifle wielding Brice's sarcasm help to set up the game board for the first move.
It's difficult to say much about how and if Ajax and his pals manage to outflank Brice without spoiling the overabundance of twists and turns. I can tell you though that outnumbered as he may be, Brice clearly has the edge when it comes to any evidence of charm and wit. He is also the play's most interesting character and Peter Strauss takes full advantage as he goes about preparing a gourmet meal while trading insults with Stephan, flirting mildly with Alegra and trying to woo his grudge carrying son away from the communal triumvirate that has been influenced by Brice's former colleague and eventual enemy. It's a big performance but not big enough to keep the awkward blend of Brice's private and public tragedy from coming apart at its too visible seams. Nor can it prevent the personal agendas of Stephan and Alegra from being contrived or the interchanges from coming off as shrill, non-stop polemical debating rounds.
Director Robert Egan has seen to it that Strauss is adequately supported, somewhat better than adequately so by Will McCormack who imbues Stephan with a credible sense of menace. Thanks to Santo Loquasto's handsomely equipped kitchen, Laura Bauer's costumes and Donald Holder's lighting there are no complaints about the way the production looks and sounds. The polemics, plot contrivances and at times far-fetched dialogue notwithstanding, the script also dishes up its quota of Baitzian literary allusions and often funny lines.
If Mr. Baitz's vision of a dystopian America seems too hopeless, you might want to grab a straw of hope by recalling that Ajax was a mythical Greek hero, the son of the arrogant Ileius of Locris who ended up fighting against Troy in Homer's Iliad. Maybe this or another Ajax will come forward with a less politics as usual plan for bringing about meaningful change.
LINKS TO OTHER JON ROBIN BAITZ PLAYS REVIEWED AT CURTAINUP
The Film Societymlt
End of the Day
Mizlansky/Zilinsky or "Schmucks"
Note: Another new Baitz play, Paris Letter, is slated for a Broadway debut next fall.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
Click image to buy.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.