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To borrow a line from the great soul singer Sam Cooke, I don't know much about history, but I do know that Benedict Arnold turned traitor during the American Revolution. In the world premiere of Benedict Arnold, now playing at Palm Beach's Florida Stage (formerly the Pope Theatre Company), playwright William Mastrosimone sets out to fill in history's blanks and lay bare the greed, seduction, and megalomania behind the war hero's defection. But like a dull civics teacher, Mastrosimone succeeds only in converting the drama of Arnold's life into a dry treatise that offers little entertainment value and no connection to the present.
The action begins in 1800 with the 60-year-old Arnold (Dan Leonard) fighting taunting apparitions from his past -- ghosts that distract him from preparing for the following morning's duel to defend his name. As his wife Peggy (Joanna Olsen) tries to convince him to back out of the contest, both are caught up in memories of their younger selves (Bob Rogerson and Alana J. Gerlach) and their deeds of 22 years earlier that caused them to flee their American homeland for a safe yet distinctly inhospitable haven in England.
In scenes that shift back and forth through time over the play's two acts -- making the printed program's chronology a must-read -- Benedict Arnold portrays its protagonist and his wife with a double cast. The elder couple observes the past, sometimes even conversing with their youthful counterparts, but they are powerless to change their fateful earlier actions.
Those actions include a wounded Arnold being carried from the front during the siege of Quebec during the American Revolution, with the rebel hero of the battle for Fort Ticonderoga marveling at the number of bullet holes in his army coat and concluding that it is his destiny to survive the war and live to found a nation in which monuments will stand to his memory.
After waging campaigns for the control of Montreal and Saratoga and earning the rank of major general, Arnold seems poised to fulfill his prophesy. Arriving to take command of Philadelphia, the widowed father of three sons is overcome by the flirtatious charms of loyalist Peggy Shippen and decides to make her the next Mrs. Benedict Arnold. Somewhat impetuously he buys an expensive house to impress her, even though he has depleted his fortune outfitting his militia and now awaits the Continental Congress to pay his back wages.
But the beautiful and witty merchant's daughter proves something of a military strategist herself, entertaining the affections of the leader of whichever army is occupying Philadelphia at the moment. As gunfire signals that the city is falling to the rebel army, the older Peggy looks on, ruefully watching her younger self delay the dashing British Capt. John Andre (Anthony Newfield) from joining his retreating troops. Although she soon turns her romantic attentions to Arnold, Peggy remains an outspoken supporter of the crown, much to the dismay of her obsequious father (Michael George Owens), who wants to keep a low profile to avoid the purges that have left his relatives and other British sympathizers hanging from Philadelphia's street lamps.
Strapped for cash and ill-suited to a civilian command, Arnold sets out on a course of profiteering, ignoring the cautionary advice of his assistant (Barry Tarallo). When Congress catches wind of his malfeasance, Arnold is court-martialed and fined but retains his army commission. And his manipulating wife still has a very close friend, Andre, in the British army.
Arnold's decision to throw in with the enemy ends Act I, sending the audience to intermission having learned only that he will become a traitor. And although his plan to gain a post at West Point and then turn the military installation -- and visiting Gen. George Washington -- over to the British is fascinating, it comes too late to build sufficient suspense in a story to which every fifth-grader already knows the conclusion.
Offering something not taught in schools, Benedict Arnold features two pairs of plotting lovers: Peggy convinces her love-struck husband of an inevitable British victory, while Andre uses his influence and an obliquely alluded to sexual intimacy with British Gen. Henry Clinton (Ryan Hilliard) to gain approval to pursue Arnold's defection. Far from bringing the production to a steamy boil, however, Mastrosimone's stilted language, requisitioned straight from ye olde dialogue shoppe, stifles the passions under a suffocating net of period atmosphere.
Arnold's love for Peggy is presented less as a romance than as a catalyst for his treason, yet the script's attempt to draw a bead on the traitor's motivations is no more precise than a scattershot colonial-era musket. Among the targets: the neglected war hero's shaky finances; Congress's continuing slights; his own visions of grandeur; and an obsession to bring honor to the family name borne of childhood memories of his father being placed in the public stocks as punishment for the man's drinking bouts, which ultimately led to the family's financial ruin.
Watching Arnold battle his demons could certainly be as stimulating as watching him battle the British, but Mastrosimone's decision to employ "before-and-after" Arnolds reduces the man's internal struggle to a too-simple dichotomy: The young Arnold hopes for glory, while the older Arnold urges caution and repents his actions. Though Rogerson invests the younger man with facial expressions that suggest he harbors some doubt about his impending actions, and Leonard's older counterpart retains some of Arnold's youthful swagger, neither actor can overcome being handed only half a role.
As young Peggy, Gerlach sidesteps any attempt to present a balanced portrayal, instead seizing Mastrosimone's one-dimensional conniver and playing her to the hilt. Both as the spoiled pet who shuns her father's advice to flirt with soldiers from both camps and as the woman who fakes hysteria to save herself from a charge of treason, Gerlach provides the production's rare captivating moments. On the other hand, given little to do but carry her husband's coat, Olsen's solemn, defeated elder Peggy bears little resemblance to the firebrand of her youth.
The remainder of the cast deserves commendations of valor: Owens' comic timing pays off in his depiction of Peggy's father and various dignitaries; Newfield's upper-crust prissiness upholds our preconceptions of Royalists; Hilliard invests generals Washington and Clinton with the right amount of war-weary realism; Kevin Blake nails the disillusioned cynicism of the impoverished rebel army's young soldiers and couriers; and Tarallo hits a realistic note as Arnold's loyal subordinate. Yet the play's perpetually shifting chronology and necessity for exposition to set up historical events ultimately work against the economies of doubling roles, making it difficult, for example, to distinguish between Hilliard as Continental Army generals Washington and Horatio Gates.
Adding to the confusion is Jim Fulton's dream-like shadowy lighting for the play's later setting and his choice of bright vistas for the earlier years; these peg the time shifts but fail to assist in explaining the significance of the elder Benedict and Peggy's haphazard time-travels. Similarly Michael Amico's minimal set of tables and chairs placed before a background of eighteenth-century war artifacts solves the technical problem of accommodating scenes that take place over twenty years on two different continents, but it stops short of investing any one setting with a distinctive feel. Finally, as for Mark Pirolo's functional costumes, at least the red and blue army coats help us to distinguish the Americans from the Brits.
Given two plays to direct -- one in which a young man turns against his country and one filled with that same man's later regrets -- J. Barry Lewis imparts a definite rhythm to each, contrasting the straightforward thrust of the American Revolution era against the slower-paced tentative gloom of Arnold's final years. Distressingly, though, Lewis never consolidates the two to produce one unified theatrical experience. Then again, working from Mastrosimone's script, how could he? An award-winning playwright (Los Angeles Drama Critics Award for The Woolgatherer, New York Critics Circle Award for Extremities), as well as a successful television writer (Sinatra miniseries, The Burning Season), Mastrosimone delivers a cinematic script instead of one crafted for the stage. Camera work, a soundtrack, and clever editing could translate the story's doppelgangers, vague historical sketches, and sweeping scenes into a comprehensible tale. For the theater, however, where the audience serves as both cameraman and editor, deciding where to focus, Mastrosimone's script lacks the visual and verbal clues necessary to create a memorable dramatic impact.
Written by William Mastrosimone. Directed by J. Barry Lewis. Starring Dan Leonard, Bob Rogerson, Alana J. Gerlach, Joanna Olsen, Anthony Newfield, Ryan Hilliard, Michael George Owens, Barry Tarallo, and Kevin Blake. Through November 30. For more information call 561-585-3433 or 800-514-3837.