Empty Seats, Empty Suits

Deborah Sherman tells me that Barton Bishop's Still The River Runs is drawing the worst houses in the history of the Promethean Theatre, of which Sherman is the executive artistic director. This is remarkable, because Promethean Theatre is a company that almost always draws bad houses. I have seen them perform mind-expanding, soul-enlarging shows for audiences as small as ten.

Sherman tells me that River has played to crowds of four.

So get your ass to Promethean for River's one remaining weekend. You'll be glad you did. Still The River Runs is a profound, and profoundly moving, meditation on death, family, and meaning that would be intolerably tragic if it weren't so sweet.

In River, two brothers in Polk County set out to bury their "Paw Paw," a disgraced local cop whose brothers-in-arms recently riddled a young black man with 100+ bullet holes. The brothers kidnap Paw Paw's corpse from the funeral home and begin the drive to their putative burial ground in the woods. When their vehicle is run off the road, they continue the odyssey on foot.

The brothers are very different men. The younger is a stoic veteran of our country's most recent Iraqi excursion, given to terse, hyper-grammatical existentialist proclamations. In one of them, he refers to Mother Nature as a "bitch" with "annihilative tendencies." His brother, on the other hand, speaks in word salad as often as not. Trying to remember the name of a particular southern state, he comes up with this construction: Ar-kansas-saw.

Still The River Runs is strictly funny at first. Bishop's got a gift for banter, and he keeps the early bits of the play light, giving his scenes frivolous little titles like "Didn't Take an Asteroid All That Big" and "Ain't No Place in This World for a Cowpig." It's only as the brothers become reacquainted that Bishop's big questions come into view — questions of God, of guilt, of how much ugly history a single man can accumulate before he decides that life isn't worth the trouble.

Mark Duncan plays the older, dumber brother with bruised, jubilant innocence. A lifetime of poor choices in a nowhere town has, in its own way, damaged him as badly as the war damaged his brother, but just a quick look at Duncan's bewildered, hopeful face is enough to tell you that he'll never have the mental or emotional acuity to deal with it. The younger brother is played by Scott Genn — the straight man to Duncan's frequent absurdities, and the repository of whatever bit of truth Bishop was seeking in River. Genn's portrayal is slow and sad, imbued with a gravitas he's seldom had the chance to summon in any other show. Bishop's script doesn't hold out much hope for the guy, but Genn's acting, rather than his lines, might convince you that even untreatable wounds can be redeemed by... well, I would say "grace," but for the religious connotation. Call it wisdom.

Over at Florida Stage, the world premiere of William Mastrosimone's Dirty Business is something else entirely: one third Oliver Stonish inquiry into the assassination of JFK, one third urbane sex comedy, and one third sordid bedroom drama. It's a schizophrenic little play that makes sense only because its characters are so familiar: Jack Kennedy, Joe Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, mobster Sam Giancana, and a seemingly random starfucker named Judy (based on Judith Campbell Exner, JFK's extramarital mistress for two years), who resembles every other random starfucker in history. If it weren't for these broad, almost archetypal characters holding the narrative in place, Dirty Business would strike you as a play that doesn't know what it's trying to be. Since we're dealing with the Kennedys, though, the contradictions seem natural. The Kennedys always mixed the historic with the seedy. It was their way.

Dirty Business reveals the entirely speculative chain of events that brought Kennedy pal Sinatra to Florida to convince Sam Giancana to "deliver" America's labor unions in the coming democratic primaries. Soon, Sinatra's role as the Kennedy-Giancana go-between is unwittingly usurped by Judy (Elizabeth A. Davis), who somehow winds up dating both the mobster and the politician. What follows is a pedestrian intrigue of power lust, political ambition, and ordinary romantic yearning that is completely overshadowed, even in the moment of performance, by the history behind it. The play takes us from various bedrooms on the Kennedy campaign trail to the Oval Office to the Palm Beach residence of Giancana, and characters talk and scheme as though they were doing nothing more substantive than planning a weekend outing. Throughout, they are massively indifferent to the millions of people whose lives will be altered every time the mighty men make a decision. Their motivations are entirely private — Joe Kennedy does all he does for vanity and genetic immortality; Jack Kennedy does what he does because he was bred to do no other; Sinatra is a pure social climber; Giancana wants money and power — and in every scene, audiences are left wondering if, in life, the public could be so obviously left in the lurch. Words like "civil rights," "peace," and "poverty" make only cameo appearances in Dirty Business, if they appear at all.

For Dirty Business, Florida Stage has pulled together a typically competent cast of local regulars and imports. Import James Lloyd Reynolds is a passable Kennedy — impassive, jealous, a façade of grace and competence perfectly obscuring a bottomless well of inchoate desire. But it's not a showcase role. Kennedy was too much a cipher.

So is this version of Frank Sinatra, played by Jack Gwaltney like a dumb mook. None of Sinatra's native intelligence — so obviously on display, in that era, in Sinatra's role in The Manchurian Candidate — comes through on Gwaltney's face, which is a mess of uncomprehending anxiety.

I've never seen Gordon McConnell do a Mafioso before, but he's perfect: charming, kindly, and dangerously unstable. You never quite trust his grin, and by the time he bites a chunk out of Judy's ass as a way of getting a message to the Prez, you look forward to leaving the theater and getting as far from the dude as possible.

Good as McConnell is, the real draw here has to do with seeing the sacred cow that is Kennedy dragged off to yet another well-deserved slaughter. And it's more than that: in a weird way, it feels good to be reminded of what a vicious, dishonest little racket politics have always been. Dirty Business is yet another reason to hope, in these decisive days, that the very near future will see politics transformed into something else, and better.

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Brandon K. Thorp