When the Satire Is Blunt
Dearly beloved, why are you reading a theater review right now? Are you not aware that the country is about to be taken over by a cruel, dishonest, superstitious gun fetishist of a Manchurian candidate who wants to retool our nation's already shaky science curriculum until the completely unscientific creation myth of a warlike Middle Eastern cult is elevated to the level of, and taught alongside, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection? Don't you have bigger things to worry about? Is your passport up to date?
Well, let's say it is. Then maybe you're looking for a little light entertainment to occupy your brain till the hammer falls. Maybe what you're after is some scathing political satire — something topical that'll reveal American politics as the comedy of errors that many claim it is, something to make the horror manageable. Maybe you think Lying in State, which opened last week at the Caldwell, will do nicely. Sorry to add yet more despair to an already desperate moment, but Lying in State will do no such thing. You can't blame the actors, except one, and you can't blame the director, save for producing such a venal giggle of a script in the first place. The problem here is conceptual: This is a bluntly lowbrow play that tries to mock the dumbness of politics in a way even the politically dumb can understand. If Lying in State is to be believed, the funniest thing about politicians is that they occasionally frequent hookers... and that they will do anything to win an election. How adroit.
In Lying in State, we witness the comings and goings of various men and women from a funeral parlor in what appears to be Tallahassee. A sexually promiscuous, alcoholic state senator has died while running for reelection, and his ex-wife, Edna, is trying to organize his funeral. In come the senator's campaign manager (who is delighted at the campaign's sudden mortal turn: It has transformed the senator from an embarrassment to a national hero), the senator's apparent fiancée (Buttons, an exotic dancer), the governor's son (a virginal 28-year-old, present for no particular reason), a grieving widow from the parlor next door (stoned on at least two high-powered prescription grief-lifters), and the senator's brother (a moderately famous author at least as prone to drunkenness as the senator himself). The play begins during visiting hours; many people of many nationalities come to pay their respects. Of course, filling a stage with hundreds of mourners is beyond most theaters' powers, which is why the playwright had the funeral home err in setting up the viewing in an adjoining parlor, occupied by another, nonsenatorial cadaver. But none of the characters in this play are particularly worried — in fact, they don't even feel obligated to go and meet the grieving throngs. We are inclined to appreciate this, as a play with its actors offstage is apt to be pretty boring. Still, it's silly.
But basing a play on such weird contrivances is bad, jolting business, and you can't even excuse it as one of the necessary absurdities of good slapstick (after all, there's nothing particularly funny about a bunch of politicians dodging somebody's wake, especially if, like the characters of Lying in State, they don't even acknowledge that they're doing so). And yet Lying in State is made up entirely of such witless absurdities: Corpses are misplaced, the president is attacked by drug-sniffing dogs at the state capitol (why were they there?), and huge, purple chipmunks play taps. Seriously. I wanted to weep for the actors involved in this mess — actors who, thanks to a cruel directorial choice, cannot even complete a curtain call without debasing themselves (they take their call while performing a weird little dance involving a coffee can and a conga line, which I'm sure speaks volumes about America's political malaise). None of them walk away with their dignity, even though Angie Radosh, John Felix, and Kim Ostrenko deliver performances that you could almost call inspired if the word could be in any way attached to such a stone-dumb play.
Radosh, as the grieving widow from the parlor next door, gets most of the show's laughs by turning herself into the broadest possible lampoon of an aging, nasal New York Jew (her husband's name was Marty, and you can tell exactly what kind of lady she'll be the moment she forgets, as she often does, that her husband is dead and intones his name in the Long Island patois with which we're all so overfamiliar: "Maaaaawty!"). You've encountered this character a billion times, but she works better than anything else in the show precisely because creating her took so little brainpower on the part of playwright David C. Hyer. Thinking was not his strong suit (he is deceased).
Felix's character, the senator's brother Harry, is almost as obvious and works almost as well. When he reels drunkenly at the news that each state has its very own senate and declares that he's going to write an exposé on this shameful example of government waste, you may be forgiven for chuckling. A little. And if Kim Ostrenko, as the willowy stripper turned senatorial fiancée named Buttons, doesn't exactly break new ground, she at least creates something watchable: a flaked out-hooker with a heart of gold, an old trope done justice when Ostrenko wraps her long limbs around it. Of the four remaining cast members, three turn in good, workmanlike performances, while one is abysmal. That one is Allan Baker. Playing the senator's campaign manager, he screeches, jumps, and gesticulates as wildly as an opera singer in a mosh pit, as though pure volume and hyperactivity could somehow distract his audience from the fact that the play is pure shit. I found myself admiring his energy — the man definitely earns his paycheck — even while sighing like Al Gore and looking at my watch. Suddenly inspired to run his candidate as a cadaver — as new campaign slogans pop into his finely tuned political mind, new television advertisements, new angles and hooks that might make such a thing work — Baker lights up as if dawn were breaking over his face. He beams hugely, his eyes grow wild, his hands clench and unclench. You can't help but wonder: Wow! What could this guy do with some really good satire?
But this is bad satire. Are politicians absurd? Sure they are. So are doctors, garbage men, and waitresses. What that absurdity means in the political sphere is barely hinted at in Lying in State, and real satirical humor — the kind that comes from seeing a joke hit its target, thereby shaking up our understanding of both — is beyond it. No number of admirable performances can save a play from that kind of failure or even transform the failure into an entertaining evening. Forget Lying in State's militant lowbrowness and stunning obviousness. This is the very worst thing you can say about a comedy, especially in bad times: After missing all its marks, it barely made us laugh.
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