Reviewed by David Spencer
In starting the score of a new musical and resolving some business loose-ends to get the jump on yet another, plus teaching, plus life or what passes for it, I've been a little more selective than in previous summers about the "lower profile" limited-run offerings I review, that aren't under the aegis of prominent companies (i.e. MTC, Roundabout, etc.) and I'm afraid that my selectivity is more whimsical than purposeful; as I scan the press releases, an interesting topic or author's bio or cast member can be the flag—and in this late August, that brought me to these two:
Tings Dey Happen, at the Culture Project's new location, is a one man "report" in the tradition of historical monologists like Anna Devere Smith. It is written and performed by a young actor, Dan Hoyle, who portrays warlords, militants, oil workers, prostitutes, and the American ambassador to Nigeria in this close-up of Nigerian oil politics based on his year there as a Fulbright scholar. He presents us with a number of interesting and even contradictory characters (i.e. a sniper with aspirations of attending college), and has various regional accents pegged—sometimes to a fault; even if you have a fast and practiced ear, the get-familiar curve is high, and you can often find yourself thinking what the hell did he just say? (At one point a passing character even pauses to comment on the periodic impenetrable accent, which gets an appreciative laugh from the audience.) I felt, though, as if I was getting a fragmented picture; comprehensive but not quite cohesive. In the end I didn't quite understand what I was supposed to feel about the complex political and social system being examined (other than that it's unfortunate) or where it was supposed to fit in my awareness/appreciation of the state of the world at large. Judging from the audience reaction, which was respectful but mild, I suspect I was not alone.
In an odd way, a much more straightforward play about American politics, Fair Game, left me feeling similar. Here's the thumbnail, right out of the press release, with actor's names interpolated: Karl Gajdusek's drama "about politics, scandal and spin," "gives a behind-the-scenes look at a woman's presidential campaign...and the scandals that threaten to topple it...In this ripped-from-the-headlines play Governor Karen Werthman (Joy Franz) is running for the highest office in the land, when her son (Chris Henry Coffey)—a professor at Princeton—returns home, embroiled in a scandal. In the hands of her spin-master campaign manager (Caralyn Kozlowski) the scandal is squelched...but at what cost to the candidate? Fair Game sheds light on the best and worst of a world where every act of right or wrong can be turned into its opposite."
Well, that all sounds riveting, but the scandal is quite tame, the son is not conflicted or complex enough to represent a sufficient moral/ethical dilemma (in fact, in general, one gets the impression that the playwright likes all his characters far too much to get them into genuine trouble) and, perhaps most importantly, Fair Game hasn't the insight, wit or characterization to rival an even middling episode of The West Wing.
With the exception of Ms. Kozlowski, the cast (also including Sarah-Doe Osborne as a student and Ray McDavitt as the conservative opponent) is uniformly low octane, if not quite bland, under the okay, unobtrusive direction of Andrew Volkoff. The experience is rather like watching an understudy runthrough with an invited audience: I kept wondering what the play might be like if the "stars" were in it...