Reviewed by Judy Richter
An unpopular war. An effort to find a fall guy after a disaster. Cover-ups and lies emanating from the highest levels of the White House.
No, these aren't today's headlines. They're plot elements in Jules Feiffer's 37-year-old satire, "The White House Murder Case," which is eerily relevant today. Feiffer, a veteran of the Korean War, says he wrote the play with the Vietnam War in mind. He also may have been thinking about the Richard Nixon White House. The war in the play is taking place in Brazil, but except for the tropical setting, it could just as easily be in Iraq, and George W. Bush could be in the White House.
As the play opens, American troops in Brazil are suffering setbacks. Gen. Pratt (Randall King), reviewing the situation before returning to Washington, inadvertently authorizes the use of nerve gas upon the advice of officers in the field. For some reason, perhaps a shift in the wind, the gas instead hits U.S. troops, killing 75 outright and leaving 90 paralyzed. Pratt himself suffers serious injuries but is able to take part in a Sunday morning White House conference with President Hale (Kevin Blackton) and several key advisers.
As they suggest ways to shift the blame -- maybe the Chinese or Russians supplied the nerve gas to the enemy -- the president sends them out to work on various scenarios. He's confronted by his contentious wife, Mrs. Hale (Diahanna Davidson), who opposes the war and asks for a divorce. She winds up dead, a "Make love, not war" sign planted in her chest. This launches the president's search for the killer, who he believes was in the meeting. It also launches another effort to come up with a way to announce her death without saying that she was murdered in the White House.
Interspersed with these White House scenes, in a curtained-off area at the back of the stage (set by Michael Walsh, lighting by Peter Soracco, sound by Andrew Hohenner), two Americans suffering effects of the nerve gas talk and try to stay alive.
Director Ray Garrett generally keeps the action running smoothly, but the Brazil scenes with Mark J. Hetrick as Lt. Cutler and Michael Craig Storm as Capt. Weems become repetitious. Some cutting might be in order. The White House characters, led by Blackton's strong performance, are portrayed by Martin Rojas-Dietrich as Professor Sweeney, a researcher involved in the development of nerve gas; William Ontiveros as Postmaster General Stiles; Kevin Kennedy as Attorney General Cole; and Gary S. Martinez as blustering Secretary of Defense Parson. Costumes are by Michele Wynne.
Despite some slow patches, this is a play that strikes too close to home. One wonders if we'll ever learn.