By Brian Stewart
Directed by Lorree True
The Deptford Players
The New 42nd St. Theater
348 W. 42nd St. (666-6509)
Equity showcase (through Sept. 17)/mini-contract (closes Oct. 14)
Review by David Mackler
[Reviewer’s note: Castro’s Beard was seen, and the review written, prior to September 11. Because of its subject matter, the play now has brand-new relevance and will likely resonate in even more ways than before. As the US government ponders its next move, what last week was satiric is now eerily ominous.]
The four men meeting at CIA headquarters in Langley are there to discuss Cuba and how to undermine the country's new leader, Fidel Castro. It's a brainstorming session, where the participants are to think up ways of enacting change, with no one making fun of anyone else's plan. That's not what happens of course (it's never what happens), but much of the pleasure of Brian Stewart's Castro's Beard is the absurdity of the scenarios talked about, and the fact that the script is based on plans that were really considered by the CIA. Reality is rarely more scary and funny than this, but to these men it's the equivalent of a business problem to be solved - as cheaply and efficiently as possible. It's tempting to think that men who can't make an overhead projector work properly would make unlikely warriors, or that marketing an assassination like a new cola would never happen. But those thoughts would be wrong.
There's Bill, the southern conservative (Jeff Berry); Tom, the nerd complete with pocket protector filled with pens (Christopher D. Roberts); Paul, the liberal Harvard lawyer (Erik Kever Ryle); and Ted, the team leader and former OSS man (H. Clark Kee). Roberts had the stooped posture of a man who has sold his soul to play by the rules and collect his pension; Berry was saddled with anticommunist rhetoric and a defense of HUAC, but he had the stature and power to pull it off; Kee was perfect as the consummate company man, intent on keeping to the topic at hand; and Ryle (filling in for David Hutson at the performance seen) was extraordinary as the outsider who insists on bringing some reality to the proceedings, as he simultaneously proves to be as susceptible as the others to the allure of the game being played.
The play's humor comes from the lunacy of these guys' being deadly serious about the task at hand - whether assassination or destabilization would be most practical, or the effects of various toxins (Tom is quite the poison aficionado, it turns out). This is where the play works best, when the men consider, quite earnestly, the mad scenarios they come up with. Sometimes the play gets bogged down in too much information, which is a shame because the preposterousness is so delightful. Less didacticism could have helped as well - Bill's spirited defense of Joe McCarthy might make the point just as well at half its length. A familiarity with the events of the time would be helpful to fully understand the particulars discussed, but the author does provide a helpful compendium in the program of books and Web sites for further reading.
But Lorree True directed the play so that these characters' interactions about events 41 years ago could still arouse strong emotional reactions, which is quite an achievement. The setting (by Berry and Michelle Zielinski) was an effective representation of a personality-free government office, and the lighting (uncredited) captured the characterless fluorescent illumination of government offices, with the only variation being a red flash on the phones when they rang. The costumes (by True) were perfect examples of what each of these personalities would wear in 1960.
"Duck and cover" was no joke to schoolchildren of the '60s, but to these men neither was the idea that engineering a reappearance of Jesus in Cuba might cause the populace to revolt. And don't forget the importance of Castro's beard. But at the end when Ted has to run off to another meeting, it was impossible to avoid the uncomfortable feeling that it might be about a certain country in Southeast Asia....
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Copyright 2001 David Mackler