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Theatre in Review: State of the Union (Metropolitan Playhouse)

Jamahl Garrison-Lowe, Kyle Minshew, Jennifer Reddish. Photo: David Patlut.

Last week, in one of those odd moments of synchronicity that seem to happen every season, I got a crash course in the political philosophy of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Among the most successful theatre men of their time, they were perhaps better known as solid plot carpenters than for their literary gifts, but they had a golden touch with musicals and straight plays alike. Many of their hits positioned them as commentators on the passing scene, and more than once they waded into matters political. In Call Me Madam, an Ethel Merman vehicle from 1950 seen at Encores! at City Center a couple of weeks ago, a lady ambassador -- really, a Washington hostess enjoying the fruits of patronage -- falls for the chancellor of the postage-stamp principality to which she has been assigned, offering him hundreds of millions in foreign aid. He turns her down flat, insisting that his tiny toy country must solve its own problems. Well, musical theatre has often trafficked in outright fantasy, and the Irving Berlin score is an insidious collection of earworms: I'm still humming "Washington Square Dance."

In State of the Union, which netted the playwrights a Pulitzer Prize in 1945, the Washington, DC, depicted may as well be Lichtenberg, the fictional setting of Call Me Madam, for all the resemblance it bears to the divided, accusatory, investigation-ridden nation's capital of today. And what a premise: Jim Conover, a GOP fixer and kingmaker, has a new trial balloon in Grant Matthews, an airplane manufacturer. Grant is a straight-shooter with no governmental experience but, as Kay, a newspaper publisher and his biggest cheerleader, notes, "The party's best chance in '48 is to put up a candidate who's never been identified with politics." Hmmm. Later, another character insists, "We need a businessman in the White House." What an idea: We've all seen how well that idea finally turned out.

But in the world according to Lindsay and Crouse, Grant is eminently qualified to be president: He is fair-minded, possessed of a global vision, and determined to unify the country. "You talk about the danger of another war -- well, we've got a war on here at home now -- a civil war -- an economic war," he says. Lecturing his potential party colleagues, he adds, "You appeal to each one of these pressure groups just to get their votes." He wants to curb the labor unions, but only if he can do the same to big industry. And, he insists, "We need a moral reconversion. Take what big business is hoping to do with the tariff -- what they tried to do on wool. They'd like to see prosperity become an American monopoly. There won't be any United Nations if America is the only prosperous country in a starving world." Somewhere, I feel, Mitch McConnell is experiencing an unexpected tremor.

Indeed, Grant is so honest and even-handed that he makes Barack Obama look like the third Koch brother. While it is true that a liberal wing of the Republican Party existed several decades ago, State of the Union leans hard -- very, very hard -- on the notion that if the American people simply pulled together, all the ills of the world could be fixed in an instant. (Unsurprisingly, race never comes up.) It's the purest fantasy and it doesn't take very long to understand that what at first appears to be a wisecracking political comedy has a heart of purest mush.

This sentimentality is so nakedly apparent possibly because much of its humor has the quality of yellowed newsprint. A great deal is made of the fact that the GOP is in its twelfth year in the political wilderness, a situation that will seem unfamiliar, if not outright bizarre, to many in the audience. Many of the script's sharpest lines refer to presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey, Senator Robert A. Taft, the columnist Westbrook Pegler, UAW head Walter Reuther, perpetual presidential hopeful Harold Stassen, and the radio quiz show Information, Please. (A younger colleague of mine allowed that he got about half of them.) Discreet allusions are made to aid for postwar Europe (which would culminate, a couple of years later, in The Marshall Plan) and to Southern Democrats taking a dim view of their Northern brethren's more expansive view of race relations. In one scene, Grant races between rooms containing delegations from the AFL and the CIO, labor organizations that didn't speak to each other before their 1955 merger. The plot also hangs on a now-quaint notion: Grant is more or less estranged from his wife, Mary, who must be coaxed into joining him on a speaking tour designed to test his popularity. The idea is that, once elected, he can again quietly take up with Kay, the publisher, while maintaining a Potemkin Village marriage for the public. Oh, for the days when "face" and "book" weren't yoked together in a single deadly word.

If you, like me, are someone with a long memory, you may find fun in dialogue that sounds like it was culled from old Washington Merry-Go-Round columns. (One character, a newspaper reporter, is described, in not entirely complimentary fashion, as having "a little Drew Pearson blood.") Kay draws a little blood herself when she claims about Conover that "the last thing he has to boast about is Warren Harding." Conover, a pretty tough customer, throws cold water on Mary's insistence that Grant is proving popular with crowds, saying, "If applause elected presidents, William Jennings Bryan would have had three terms." And the authors insert an amusing allusion to another popular, politically themed musical when Mary, loading up on cocktails at a look-see dinner for Grant and some party stalwarts, mutters, "I'd rather be tight than be president." If this paragraph leaves you bewildered, you might not have a capital time at State of the Union.

A play like State of the Union can, arguably, work if it gets the right care and feeding, but in this case, the director, Laura Livingston, hasn't succeeded in assembling a cast well-enough versed in slick high-comedy style. There's a trick to this kind of humor, and it involves expertly throwing away lines; the members of this company tend to underline everything they say, often twice, raising their eyebrows and making faces to make sure we get the joke. I recommend a steady diet of screwball comedy films before attempting works like these. The standouts in the cast include Michael Durkin as Conover, a glad-hander with a slightly sinister undertone ("To you, my dear, the most attractive plank in your husband's platform," he says, saluting Mary), and Kyle Minshew as Grant, who starts out genial and diffident, but quickly develops a furious passion for the ideas that he believes will make America....well, you know. I also liked Jon Lonoff as an overhearty political donor and Linda Kuriloff as the wife of a distinguished judge, who exists almost entirely on a steady diet of Sazerac cocktails.

State of the Union is a big play for a company like Metropolitan Playhouse, which produces on a shoestring: It requires four locations for nineteen speaking parts. Vincent Gunn's scenic solution, which involves shifting around a couple of modular pieces, is pretty clever, and Sidney Fortner's costumes by and large have a solid period feel. Christopher Weston's lighting gets the job done and Michael Hardart's sound design includes airplane and train engines, applause, and a playlist of period tunes like "You Always Hurt the One You Love."

Aside from the rather odd Act III development in which Mary gets drunk enough to tell off the guests at her dinner party, then sobers up after a few cups of coffee, the Lindsay and Crouse dramatic architecture is well in evidence, with Mary and Grant falling back in love, romantically and politically, as he swings around the country, making speeches that inspire the electorate. But unlike, say, Gore Vidal's The Best Man, which, in its portrait of the politics of personal destruction, never seems to grow old, State of the Union is a report on a union that is far, far removed from our own. It has its pointed moments, as when Conover complains that voters are "too damn lazy" to exercise their opinions in primaries, or in a discussion of "silent money," which seems to be a precursor to the practice of bundling donations. But through most of State of the Union's running time, I wouldn't have been surprised at all if Sally Adams, the Merman character from Call Me Madam, showed up and gave us "Washington Square Dance." Actually, I wouldn't have minded that at all. -- David Barbour

(19 February 2019)

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