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A CurtainUp Review
Fear Itself, Secrets of the White House (a farcical tragedy)

We have nothing to fear but fear itself. --- FDR's famous call to arms, as well as the obvious inspiration for the title of Jean-Claude van Itallies' play.

Fear Itself
Joe Gioco as General Gin Rummy, Ken Perlstein as Emperor Butch
(Photo: Mark Roussel)
Earlier this year I was emailed a lengthy Op-Ed by Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal's drama critic. He declaimed the recent spate of political plays on the basis that not only were they one-sided, but what little drama there was lacked imagination (making an exception for Heather Raffo's Nine Parts of Desire). Now, while I can't abide by his inclusion of Tony Kushner's Angels in America in this roundup, I do concede this point: If all you can produce in a city that went 82% for Kerry in '04 is agitprop, you're not contributing anything valuable to the discourse.

Last winter's transfer from the Edinburgh Fringe, Pugilist Specialist (created by San Francisco's Riot Group) gave no quarter. It was a wrenching, spare, taut piece that did not rant. It showed military life, all blood and guts. While I found Brian Dykstra's one-man show Cornered And Alone to be a rant, it was intellectually malleable and very critical of the Left's response to the current administration. Eat the Taste, a broad satire that tracks John Ashcroft's life post-Attorney General as a vocalist, was easily the most gut-busting of the lot. It succeeded in making Mr. Apocalypse Now human, and in dire need of a booking.

Unfortunately, humanity is exactly what's missing in the Theater for the New City's production of Fear Itself, Secrets of the White House. As an anti-war Bush-basher myself I went to see the production thinking what good material the company had to work with -- what with Bush's popularity at an all-time low, the electorate finally turning against the War, and corruption scandals bubbling up every few days. What I got was a travesty. While I don't share Teachout's political leanings, I do agree with critics who suggest that theater should have a few key elements -- namely, plot, narrative structure, direction, and dialogue. None of this was in evidence.

No matter what folks might say, there are no shortages of voices from the Left these days. I can turn on Pacifica and listen to Amy Goodman or I can tune into Air America. I can walk to the Multiplex and see documentaries on Fox and Enron. On HBO there's Bill Maher's Real Time and Comedy Central has The Daily Show. This fall's features give us Good Night, and Good Luck, and most recently, Syriana.

Across every medium, all of the above possess nuance and complexity. To a great extent they are "preaching to the converted" but not, as in the case of Fear Itself , running the risk of losing the converted. As Teachout wrote, the Robbins' and Jean-Claude van Itallie's (the author of Fear) are "coasting on their leftism." I have to agree. Where is the drama about power that pervades every orifice of this administration?

Here's a rundown: Our democracy has been replaced by an Empire with Big Money as second in command. The First Family has been renamed "Butch." That has legs, if the playwright had bothered to plumb the machismo and power of the Presidency. Orwell would approve, but will the writer or director please explain why the Vice Emperor is given a plodding, inarticulate off-stage Bronx accent? I rather think that the monied interests that control much of our global wealth are well-educated and savvy even if not always well-appointed.

Fear Itself has no clear plot to speak of. As far as I can deduce, it's a recasting on the run-up to the War on Terrorism, with a few flourishes: instead of the Bush twins, we get three dysfunctional kids -- a gay dancer (can you say Ron Reagan, Jr.?), an angsty-poet daughter, and the heir apparent -- a soldier. The action of the play is split between the Oval Office and the theater of war. A trap door lifts, now serving as a backdrop, while eclipsing the foreground, except for a looming portrait of Barbara Bush -- whom everyone acknowledges to be the true brass balls behind the curtain. But even she can't save this play.

No doubt, the intentions are all good. As Emperor Butch, Ken Perlstein does an above average impersonation of a buff Commander-in-Chief, but he's given nothing to work with. This is not Jarry's Ubu Roi. As "Emperor Mommy" Susan Patrick reminded me of Gina Gershon in Showgirls. There was a glint that she knew what she signed up for, but she'd make the best of it.

As "General Pow Pow" Roland Sanchez had to understand Colin Powell's arc -- being a loyal dissenter who makes the case for War at the U.N. and then is ultimately forced out. I suspect the audience, having endured this production, now understands his remorse that much more bracingly. Perhaps Mr. Van Itallie, who is known for the anti-Vietnam play America Hurrah, needs to protest in the streets. His feeble attempt at art gives aid and comfort to complacency. It's that facile.

I remain optimistic for a U.S. production of David Hare's Stuff Happens, which will give us a Rumsfeld and Rice, but with teeth. The Butches of Fear Itself could not possibly sustain their Empire. They simply aren't smart enough.

Nine Parts of Desire -- London
Nine Parts of Desire -- New York
Brian Dykstra: Cornered & Alone
Pugilist's Specialist
Stuff Happens --London
Stuff Happens -- Los Angeles
Good Night and Good Luck-- in our Movie Page

Fear Itself: Secrets of the White House (a farcical tragedy)
Written by Jean-Claude van Itallie
Directed by George Ferencz
Cast: Ken Perlstein, Susan Patrick, Joe Gioco, Roland Sanchez, Leslie Ann Hendricks, Jason Howard, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Rene Anderson, Timothy Doyle, Eric Goss, and Jenn Vath
Costume Design: Sally Lesser
Lighting Design: Federico Restrepo
Sound Design: Tim Schellenbaum
Running time: 105 minutes with one intermission
Theater for the New City 155 First Avenue (between 9th and 10th Streets) (212) 254-1109 or From 12/11/05 to 1/08/06

Thursday to Sunday, December 10 - 18 @ 8pm; Wednesday to Sunday, December 28 - January 8 @8pm; No Performances December 22 - 25; Weekends and Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 3pm.
Ticket s: $15./TDV Vouchers accepted.

Reviewed by Jerry Weinstein based on the December 10, 2005 performance.
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