Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Theater Review: USA (American Century) and Assassins (Signature)

Two dramas dealing with the basic questions of American identity, community and theatricality are approaching the end of their respective runs within a few miles of each other in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Signature Theatre’s thrilling new production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins closes on July 30. American Century Theater’s substantially less-than-magnificent production of John Dos Passos’s USA closes this weekend. As Sondheim’s unlikely chorus of murderers and would-be murderers might sing, “Everybody’s got the right.” But with time running out, not everybody's got the tickets.

For those who aren't familiar with Assassins, the basic concept is so bizarre that one might guess the show was written on a dare. It recounts the assassinations -- and attempted assassinations -- of American presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan with songs, dances and revue-like sketches. Thirteen years ago, director Eric Schaeffer put Signature Theatre on the map with a production of the show that was not just a Washington-area premiere, but the first time the show had been staged anywhere outside of New York. Now, with Signature's reputation firmly established, the company has revisited this difficult, alienating American musicals. Its new production of Assassins, directed by Joe Calarco, radically reimagines the show, and snaps Signature out of its spring slump.

Many of the Signature regulars are present here. Stephen Gregory Smith brings an unsettling, fresh-faced innocence to the dual role (or is it?) of the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald. Matt Conner, who wrote the score for Signature's regrettable Edgar Allan Poe musical Nevermore (hopefully, never again), fares somewhat better onstage as John Hinckley, Jr. Signature perennial and co-founder Donna Migliaccio provides welcome comic relief as Sara Jane Moore, one of two would-be assassins of Gerald Ford. But one actor in the cast delivers a standout performance: As John Wilkes Booth, the “pioneer” of American assassins, Will Gartshore tops his Helen Hayes award-winning performance in Signature’s own Urinetown. Like many of the roles in this show, Booth frequently seems like a concept, not a character; his purpose, it seems, is to inspire, wheedle or cajole the other lost souls in this show toward his cause. Yet Gartshore's charisma and charm work their magic on this impossible role, and bring it to vibrant life.

John Weidman’s book leans toward the perfunctory, but Sondheim’s score more than redeems it. The music is a panoply of Americana, with nineteenth-century cakewalks, barbershop quartets and John Philip Sousa marches placed cheek-by-jowl with 1970s soft rock and classic Broadway showtunes. Sondheim's jaunty opening number, "Everybody's Got the Right," may be the most compulsively hummable melody of his career. And although Sondheim and Weidman don't shortchange the most famous assassins, they seem to wax most eloquently over lesser-known figures like Charles Guiteau (an appropriately demented Mika Duncan) and Leon Czolgosz (Tally Sessions), as well as failures like would-be FDR assassin Giuseppe Zangara (Peter Joshua, in fine operatic voice) and Nixon-hating misanthrope Samuel Byck (a terrifying Andy Brownstein, who hits the right notes for his character by seeming to hit all the wrong ones).

Most productions of Assassins, including a 2004 Tony award-winning Broadway revival, have treated the show as a battle between the “haves” who can become President and the “have-nots” who eventually try to kill them. The characters onstage often speak of themselves as victims: Booth mourns that “the country is not what it was,” Zangara tries to shoot FDR because “the bosses made my belly burn,” and Czolgosz murders McKinley to advance the anarchosocialist cause. Sondheim's lyrics even join the blame game, with the killers stating that "we're the other national anthem, folks, the ones who can't get into the ballpark." But thanks to a startling, Brechtian set design by James Kronzer (which it would be unfair for me to reveal here), the characters’ social commentary is immediately undercut.

At the start, director Carolco obviously means for the audience to confront these assassins as if we were looking in a mirror: Consumed by anomie and ennui, this chorus of "suckers, pikers, ones who might have been" is meant to represent us, and perhaps all of America by extension. By the end of the play, though, we realize that these characters may not be like us at all. It's no accident that the assassins' acknowledged leader and inspiration is a failed actor, since more than anything else, these characters want to perform, to have their moment onstage, to be noticed if not applauded. But even though they have "the right to their dreams," they can't dream dreams that others can share, nor can they make their respective dreams come true. To the extent that these characters are similar to us, it's because they, like us, seem born to witness the pageant of history rather than particpate in it. The crucial difference, of course, is that most of us have the common decency -- or at least the common sense -- not to crash the stage.

Like Assassins, the American Century Theater’s new production of USA also addresses America's history and identity. But where Assassins succeeds, USA falls flat. The play itself dramatizes three novels written by John Dos Passos between 1930 and 1936, all centered on America’s involvement in World War I. The 42nd Parallel (1930) leads up to America's declaration of war, 1919 (1932) treats the war and its immediate aftermath, and The Big Money (1936) explores the long-term consequences of war, ending with the onset of the Great Depression. Today, the USA trilogy is best known for its groundbreaking stylistic and typographical devices. “Newsreels” present headlines, speeches and popular songs of the day (often in foreign languages), while prose poems attack America's privileged and powerful, and autobiographical “Camera Eye” passages give the overall portrait of America a personal touch.

In the novels, Dos Passos lambastes corporate capitalism, and celebrates the emerging Communist movement in Russia and the United States. However, his commitment to Communism would not last. By 1959, when he set out to adapt USA for the stage, he had renounced socialism and, like many recovering leftists, become a staunch libertarian. He remained a respected and productive writer during this time, but the critics who cheered his earlier work claimed he was in decline. The stage version of USA, co-written by Dos Passos and young dramaturg Paul Shyre, was a transparent attempt to recapture some of his old acclaim and success. It left audiences cold, closed quickly, and has seldom been revived.

The recent production of USA at The American Century Theater (TACT) closes this weekend -- and frankly, it left me cold, too. It’s not TACT’s fault that the show seldom soars: Under Jacqueline Manger’s direction, it is crisp, well-staged, ambitious, sometimes even magical. I could say that in all likelihood, this is the best production of USA you'll ever see. But that would beg the question, since the play itself is deeply problematic. Dense and unwieldy, it substitutes narration for dramatic interaction, and it lacks any discernible catharsis or climax.

The plot (what there is of it) depicts the rags-to-riches success of J. Ward Moorehouse, a public-relations man and Washington lobbyist. In a way, the choice of lead characters is ironic; few readers of the USA trilogy would identify Moorehouse as a central figure. He has a fairly prominent role in The 42nd Parallel, then appears only sporadically in the other two novels -- usually as a villain, not a hero. If the novels have a central character, it would probably be Dos Passos himself: His "camera eye" and social consciousness are always present, extolling the virtues of the American Communist movement and denouncing the shortcomings of free enterprise. Ideology and didacticism drive these novels forward, often in the absence of well-defined characters or a traditional plot. It's hardly a compliment, then, to state that the stage version of USA is less didactic than its source material. By moderating the extremism of Dos Passos's youthful politics, the play knocks the wind out of its sails.

Still, TACT has ensured that USA offers its share of fleeting pleasures. As Moorehouse, Evan Hoffmann ages convincingly from youth to middle age without the aid of makeup or costume changes. Bruce Alan Rauscher achieves the reverse, playing two characters much younger than himself -- the hapless sailor Joe Williams, and Moorehouse’s protege Dick Savage -- with equal aplomb. As Moorehouse’s secretary, Monalisa Arias plays an inconspicuous character conspicuously well, then shifts gears at the end to portray a loudmouthed Brooklynite.

Brandon Vierra’s multilayered sound design invokes the kaleidoscopic richness of the Dos Passos novels far better than the script itself does, while Michael deBlois’s minimalist set provides a visually striking counterpart to the action. Projection designer James G. Champlain may be the show’s unsung hero: With a set of well-chosen slides, he evokes locales as diverse as a train coach, a plush Parisian apartments, a gentlemen's health clubs, and a dusty American backroad.

Alas, the technical and acting talent on display cannot rescue this pointless, meandering work -- though for devotees of live theater, it's probably sufficient to warrant a mild recommendation. Certainly TACT should be commended for illuminating these darker, dustier corners of American theater history. Sometimes the plays it rescues from oblivion have proven timely and worthwhile; sometimes they've been deservedly forgotten. USA falls squarely in the latter category.


Assassins, by Steven Sondheim (music, lyrics) and John Weidman (book). Two hours, no intermission. At Signature Theatre until July 30. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 800-955-5566 or click here.

USA, by John Dos Passos and Paul Shyre. Two hours and thirty-five minutes, one intermission. At Theatre II, Gunston Arts Center until July 15. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 703-553-8782 or click here.

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