Arts » Theater

State of the Union not for political junkies

American politics, then and now

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Grip and grin: Jeri Lynn Schulke and David zum Brunnen in State of the Union - PHOTO BY SHELDON T. BECKER

State of the Union

Deep Dish Theater
Through March 8

Politics and theater have a lot in common. Both traffic in manipulating the emotions, beliefs and conclusions of the crowd, focusing and directing public energies onto one goal, person or topic. In both, the crisis comes when we simply stop believing.

So it's tempting to call State of the Union a period piece that only confirmed political junkies could love. But let's face it: Most of those addicts have had some combination of Hunter S. Thompson on the mainline since Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, with logarithmic escalations in their dosages of Matt Drudge and Bill O'Reilly since the 1990s and Eschaton, Real Clear Politics and Keith Olbermann through the current decade.

Sorry, but Howard Lindsey and Russel Crouse's comparatively genteel 1945 political comedy is likely to have about as much of a detoxifying effect on that particular body politic as a handful of baby aspirins on an outpatient in methadone maintenance. As a result, the current Deep Dish Theater production is, mainly, inoffensive—presumably not the first quality political theater aspires to.

That's particularly regrettable given the latest broils on the Democratic side of the 2008 presidential election. At this writing, political analysts have concluded that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton will have enough delegates to clinch the nomination before the convention. Ostensibly, that will leave the nominee to ultimately be decided by the so-called "superdelegates"—the same sort of politicos, fixers and back-room wizards, in short, who litter Union's three acts.

Wisdom, boilerplate and otherwise, is sprinkled through the script. Some viewers will be mildly shocked to hear fading Republican king-maker Jim Conover (Jordan Smith) worry that the country is splitting apart, and presidential hopeful Grant Matthews (David zum Brunnen) brood about an economic war at home—more than a half-century before John Edwards first spoke of "two Americas." Matthews' wife, Mary (Jeri Lynn Schulke), gets in a few zingers as well. At one point she fires a devastating critique of the party hacks around her, at point-blank range: "You politicians have stayed professionals only because the voters have remained amateurs."

It is hard to argue with the premise that too many Americans still pay about as much attention to the conditions under which their candidates are packaged as they do to the packaging of fresh meat. But even with judiciously topical updates, our eyes still glaze at the well-worn soapbox bromides this kludgy script resorts to whenever the topic,"What's Wrong with This Country?" is broached.

The problems with such noble posturings isn't even their long-lapsed expiration date so much as internal inconsistencies in the show itself. Here's the setup from one such moment: Matthews, a successful airplane manufacturer and campaign contributor, has been lured from New York to the Washington home of Conover, a wheel in the national Republican Party, by Kay Thorndyke (Susannah Hough), the pulchritudinous and influential Republican newspaper chain owner with whom Matthews has been having an affair. Drinks have been served; opinions on political prospects are being solicited—the sole reason for the meeting. Here's Matthews' line: "Let me make this clear: I don't want to be president of the United States."

It's not the worst line in a poorly written initial scene; that honor goes to the ham-handed exposition delivered both by phone and in person. Still, its disingenuous presence and others' throughout the script are more than enough to alert us to what I'll call the myth of the seduction.

Still, any review of the show must note how good it is to hear Jordan Smith's authoritative baritone on the local stage once again. Leading actors Schulke, the bullet-eyed zum Brunnen and Hough are complemented by strong supporting actors Larry Evans, Holmes Morrison, Sharlene Thomas and Margaret Jemison. But the shortcomings of the 60-year-old script prevents such a seasoned cast from achieving its best.

E-mail Byron Woods at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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