State of the Union - Strawdog Theatre (theatre review)
What's the opposite of progress? CONgress!
Isn't this a funny joke? It's also really old. See, people have been making fun of governments and politics for as long as there have been governments and politics. That's because very, very few things change about them.
For example, I'm sure that cavemen probably made fun of the caveman chief behind his back because...oh, say maybe he banged a chimpanzee or something. Maybe they made fun of him with an awesome cave painting of him banging this poor chimp. BAM...first political cartoon.
Let's just be clear as mud, America. There were never any "good old days" when it comes to politics. It's always been a rancid profession, filled with schemers and charlatans. Anyone who is in politics has had to make compromises and say things they didn't mean, because that's what you do when you are trying to appeal to as many people as possible. Washington, D.C. has been called Hollywood for ugly people. I don't think that statement really means physically "ugly" (although not too many of our politicians would make Maxim's Hot 100...except Newt Gingrich) more as it means having an "ugly" soul. Which means Hollywood must be Washington D.C. for zombie people...ah ha ha.
And let me be PERFECTLY frank here folks...I trust no one in this profession. Not Democrats, not Republicans, not Tea Party, not Whigs, and definitely not those horrible Bull Moose sons of bitches. I can't identify with any political party, simply because I find them mostly abhorrent and base. I liked Bill Clinton, but that's because he was so entertaining. And I cannot stand Barack Obama...mostly because the bastard got my hopes up. Note to self...don't drink on Election Nights from now on.
Which might be why I enjoyed Strawdog's State of the Union so goddamn much! Here's a play written in 1946 by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay that says exactly all the crap I just wrote about above but with snappy dialogue and incredible costumes!
The 3 act play (2 intermissions...yes, it's long, you'll get over it) tells the story of aviation tycoon and political idealist Grant Matthews - played with stone faced panache and subtle undercurrents by Michael Dailey - and the machinations of the Republican party to get him elected to the office of President in 1948. The Republicans here are represented mainly by political fixer Jim Conover (an effective and sinister BF Helman), the newspaper reporter cum campaign manager Spike McManus (Anderson Lawfer in a bit after bit after tasty fucking comedy bit performance), and Spike's beautiful boss and newspaper magnate Kay Thorndyke (played by Kristina Johnson, Kay is tough as nails with a soft vulnerable underbelly).
Trouble is, Grant's been making time with Kay since he's been estranged from his wife Mary! Hoo boy...NOW we got some hot stuff. This apparently was an even more taboo subject in 1946, as many of the play's detractors were appalled that it won the Pulitzer prize with such racy subject matter. I'd like to hop in the DeLorean with Larry Craig and Mark Foley and take them back to '46 and have them explain just what they did a few years ago. A guy having a piece of chicken on the side would seem like saving a burning orphanage from werewolf Nazis after that little showcase.
Mary, played with moxie and grace by Kendra Thulin (whom I am in love with now), is asked by Conover to join Grant on a nationwide speaking tour. On this tour, she becomes the real conscience of the play, warning her idealist husband against the conniving of Spike and Conover. Of course, Grant becomes more and more famous on the speaking circuit because of his oratory skills and connection with the real people. But, Conover couldn't care less for people, he wants Grant to win the only thing that counts: votes.
Helman and Lawfer have a wonderful scene together where all the facades drop away, and Conover chastises Spike for letting Grant and Mary get out of control and deviate from the party line. Oh, did this scene do my cynic's heart good, as I can imagine dialogue of this type playing out in backrooms and antechambers past, present and future! Helman and Lawfer have a wonderful chemistry here, and do a great job of representing all those fixers and PR men who want their man in office no matter the cost.
Speaking of chemistry, Dailey and Thulin also play wonderfully off each other as a husband and wife who are trying to come to terms with a relationship that is partly private, mostly public, and very conflicted.
There are other wonderful performances in this play - Kate Harris as Southern political wife Lulubelle is a lively Easter Egg of charm and thrills, meshing nicely with her onstage husband Jim Heatherly playing the Judge as a funny little bumbler.
I must mention the wondrous 40's costumes designed by Joanna Melville and the amazing transformable set design by Marianna Czaszar. Director Geoff Button's staging is serviceable, but I do have to mention the pacing. The dialogue seems to call for rapid fire exchanges, and I felt some hesitation here and there. I'm wondering if this was opening night jitters? Was it guys? I was drinking free Sierra Nevadas too, so maybe that had a lot to do with it. Or everything. The world is a strange place, who can tell?
All in all, this is an ensemble piece with standout performances and a message that obviously stands the test of time. The message is don't mess around on the side with a hot newspaper owner and piss off your wife. You'll have to eat cold hamburgers in hotel rooms and deal with her getting hammered and ruining all your political hopes. All politicians should see this play and pay full price for it. Those jerkoffs are always getting free crap, they can afford it.
Come watch an old play about politics! I'm serious!