Underhanded political wheeling and dealing is jeopardizing a trusted politician's career. A lobbyist needs the votes to destroy a fair housing bill. Will the aides to the state assemblyman ensure that the legislator is absent? The payoff is tempting. The politician doesn't need to know. Later, there is an indictment and a suspected suicide. Then there's Miss New Jersey, who just wants to be the Lottery Girl.
With so much dramatic tension, excitement, and comedy combined with competent acting, why is A Political Figure about as exciting as reading the latest Rudy Guiliani, Hillary Clinton Senate poll?
Playwright Alex Menza is gifted at constructing cliffhanging situations, but he can't quite make his characters believable. Politicians are often stupid - the impeachment hearings proved that. But when a state assemblyman honestly doesn't appear to understand why he's in trouble for accepting an all-paid vacation to the islands from a lobbyist, it rings false. And could a Miss America candidate's highest aspiration really be to pick the number balls for the lottery?
Menza raises the stakes at the expense of plausibility. His banter seems to want to evoke the passionate give-and-take of great Mamet repartee. Yet the language lacks Mamet's poetry, and often its substance.
Unfortunately, director Barbara Pitcher slowed down the pace by insisting on studied pauses throughout. To be fair, some of the leisurely tempos created a sense of reflection and stirred deep emotions. And Menza gives plenty of places for rumination. Two episodes find characters dwelling too long on the fall of a great man and the injustices of life.
Under these circumstances, the actors gave the best performances they could. Kevin Carlsten played Arnie, the beloved representative of the people. But Carlsten's wide-eyed enthusiasm and vigorous performance couldn't make the role believable. Even the strongest performers of the evening -- Janine Aloisi, playing the manipulative lobbyist, and Audrey Blake Calvani, as beautiful Miss New Jersey -- didn't rise above the contemplative nature of the production.
The inexplicably earth-tone look of the set and costumes added to the anesthetic experience of the evening. They created a strange, calming atmosphere in what should be a tense political arena. And the spottiness of the lighting was irritating.
Perhaps the production was meant to be this shallow. After all, most political campaigns are no deeper or more engaging than what was portrayed here. Even the title bespeaks an absence
of true grit.
American politics has been ripe fare for many a great theatrical
endeavor: State of the Union, Of Thee I Sing, Nixon in China,
to name a few. Menza may be running hard, but it takes more than
hard work to achieve a victory.
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Copyright 1999 James A. Lopata