(LONG WHARF THEATER, STAGE II; 200 SEATS; $60 TOP)
NEW HAVEN, Conn. A Long Wharf Theater presentation of a play in one act by Rob Handel. Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll. Sets, Sue Rees; costumes, Michelle R. Phillips; fighting, Garin Marshall; sound, Bray Poor, production stage manager, Charles M. Turner III. Opened, reviewed Dec. 7, 2005. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.
Avery Rob Campbell Alma Jennifer Dundas Monica Yetta Gottesman
Everything is always about appearances," says a character in Rob Handel's seriocomic look at the Washington intersection of public and private lives. But as Handel takes on a barely fictionalized account of the sex scandal surrounding Congressman Gary Condit and intern Chandra Levy --the latter went missing in 2001 and was found dead the following year--these appearances come with their own forced perspectives that are far from fair, true or moral. Handel's playful study of slippery identifies is nevertheless pretty engaging as it explore the fictions people employ and the games they play.
Neither the Condit nor the Levy character appears directly in this short and snappy one-acter, receiving its regional bow after an Off Broadway run last year at playwrights' collective 13P. Instead, the two are envisioned by the politician's adult son and daughter (Rob Campbell and Jennifer Dundas), who role-play the characters in the search for answers about their father, their culture and themselves.
The result is a play of amusing theatricality: One is never sure when the sister-brother act will slip into fantasy interrogations and confrontations. It begins intriguingly with one of the last encounters between the "consummate professional" politician and his young mistress, only to reveal in the next scene that the two are really the siblings "acting out" as they try to understand the nature of their father's now-exposed affair, which is saturating the media during a slow news summer.
But soon they start role-playing about their long-suffering "Stepford Wife" mother, and then about themselves, revealing that false faces may be a family as well as an American trait.
Handel is a deft writer who scores big with three great monologues, presented beautifully by his savvy and just-sympathetic-enough cast, well tuned by helmer Ken Rus Schmoll.
The first is delivered by the 33-year-old son playing the baby-boom pol, describing what it's like being in D.C. during "Clinton time" where "being a freshman congressman is just like being a freshman." He describes hanging with Big Bill, Keith Richards and Willie Nelson as a heady, empowering and fantasy-rich experience, but also one that's lonely, confused and sadly adolescent.
The second is by the 24-year-old daughter playing the missing intern, desperately and despairingly in love. Both find more than a little of themselves in these invented characters.
The monologue by the other character in this three-hander--Monica Lewinsky (Yetta Gottesman) --affords yet another view of the intoxicating pull toward power, one propelled by the heart that eventually gives way to a cold, protective realism. The appearance of Lewinsky stops the siblings cold in their role-playing and even reduces them to asking the most banal yet fundamental question: "What's it like?"
Gottesman is stunning as the poised and centered Monica, revealing the details inquiring minds want to know but also exposing those same minds to some cold truths, as well as her simple gratitude that she emerged from the scandal if not unscathed, at least alive.
All the hand-wringing over political peccadilloes is a bit dated, whether they're those of the faux-Condit or for-real Bill Clinton. Immorality measured by the previous administration's standards by the siblings seems almost trivial four years later in a post-9/11 world.
There also are few particular insights offered in the examination of the devolution of the media, the public's attraction to celebrity and the seductive appeal of smooth-talking, good-looking bad boys.
Finally, while the epilogue might end the evening with a dramatic chill, it robs the play of its view that it is nearly impossible to know the true identity of anyone in Washington.
Still, Handel's ambition and talent show enough theatrical style and engagement to suggest that his is not just the appearance of a promising playwright but the real thing.