Sexual Congress

Cheap Theatre uncovers who's turning tricks in the capitol

Erica Christ, the artistic director for Cheap Theatre, provides an unusual supplement to the plays her company produces: a half-dozen photocopied pages, inevitably titled Appendix C: Related Notes, Information and Trivia, which are filled with surprising information. With this production, the supplement includes details of a 1976 scandal involving Representative Wayne Hayes (D-Ohio), who resigned his position when the Washington Post interviewed the secretary for the House Administration Committee, who admitted that she made a $14,000 yearly salary, primarily for having sex with Hayes. "I can't type, I can't file," she told the paper, "I can't even answer the phone."

It is on the heels of such a scandal that Mark Rosenwinkel's new play, Three Seasons, begins. An environmental activist, Tom Lampley, sits outside a small New England cottage sipping tea opposite the president of the United States, a silver-haired, bespectacled fellow named Sherwood Franklin. (Franklin's wheelchair--the result of his term of service in Vietnam--cements this character's resemblance to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.)

The president, a flowery man with an artfully indirect approach to oratory, informs Lampley of the latest mortifying news from Congress: An intern has been turning tricks in the bathroom. At the president's behest, Lampley is to head up an investigative committee to find out whose hands have been dirtied by this sordid affair. Rosenwinkel, a core member of the Playwrights' Center, has managed the trick of directing his own play in this production. And, if it is true that 90 percent of the work of directing is assembling a solid cast, then Rosenwinkel has done his job well. Todd Bruse plays Lampley with a sallow-cheeked mien and jittery mannerisms. This is a man with a perpetually crooked tie, an awkward, stuttering delivery, and the self-satisfied air of one who has made self-righteousness his business. He is unconsciously condescending toward one of the president's assistants, an officious young woman played by Cherri Macht. Bruse quizzes her about her life, spouting off assumptions--mostly incorrect--about her economic and social background, and he seems to care little when she corrects him. In the presence of the president, however, Bruse's character turns deferential; courtesy, it seems, is necessary only for his superiors.

Todd Bruse and Tom Poole (feral teeth) demonstrate a common method white men use to express affection
James Gross
Todd Bruse and Tom Poole (feral teeth) demonstrate a common method white men use to express affection

Tom Poole's President, in the meanwhile, is a sprightly, somewhat distracted character. He wends his way through irrelevant stories, suggesting a likeable old crank--an amiable, poetic, and resolutely populist man, steeped in the language of the common man. Phrases such as "the backbone of our country" pepper his dialogue, and he meditates on fly-fishing as though it were his first love, even though, as becomes increasingly obvious, he has never even attempted the sport. But Poole reveals the political animal lurking behind the homely aphorisms, thanks to some witty dialogue by Rosenwinkel. He tends to drop information carefully, always showing himself to know more than had been apparent. The environmental activist is startled at one point when the president reveals a particularly intimate bit of information, and quizzes him as to how he came across such a private fact. "I don't know if you've heard, son," Poole answers cheerily. "I'm the president of the United States!"

Poole's President is terrific fun to watch, especially as the plot progresses, revealing that he may very well be going mad from the demands of his position. The actor gives his character a balmy aloofness that, at first, seems posed and disingenuous. Later though--when the president decides to make a particularly subtle point to the activist by giving a fierce squeeze to the man's testicles--his behavior resembles unfeigned lunacy. This scene risks provoking incredulity, in fact, in anyone who doesn't remember reports that George Bush Sr. once moved a member of the press corps out of his way by lifting the man by his groin.

Rosenwinkel tries to fit too much plot into his play--there's a cherchez la femme subplot that is facile and unnecessary. But he has provided an embarrassment of riches as far as characterization is concerned. The activist, for instance, is writing a book, a detail that a lesser playwright might treat as a throwaway plot point. But Rosenwinkel gives us a fairly complete outline of the book, which tells of an 18th-century soldier forging his way to the mouth of the Mississippi. From the sound of it, the book is a boyish adventure story about men of vision who tame an unruly terrain--a fine counterpoint to Rosenwinkel's tale of weak men conquered by the rough landscape of petty scandal.

 
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