As recent screenings of the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate have shown, Richard Condon's tale of governmental mind control has not lost its power to instill paranoiac fear. But though comparisons are odious, John Lahr's stage adaptation, as seen in a sleek production under the direction of Joe Tantalo by the OOBR Award-winning Godlight Theatre Company, seems to rely on its audiences' having more than a passing acquaintance with either the mesmerizing film or Condon's original novel.
Lahr's script is a lean retelling that captures all of the main themes of the terrifying story of Raymond Shaw, a US soldier who, courtesy of an experimental mind control program, has been turned into an efficient killing machine. But Lahr speaks in emotionless shorthand, keeping any of the (necessary) tension from building as Shaw (along with his buddy Ben Marco) becomes increasingly aware that something is not right. And while part of the fault lies with Lahr's fragmented adaptation, Tantalo's artistically arresting production compounded the problem. Beautifully staged, breathlessly paced, and for the most part well-acted, it was all nonetheless very much a triumph of detached style over substance. It seemed as if everybody involved were just a little too afraid of the starkly grim subject matter to really dig into it, and therefore what should have been a chilling evening of political theatre was merely chilly.
As Shaw, Randy Falcon came the closest to delving beneath the skin of the piece; his performance was intelligent, deeply felt and at times riveting. But in the critical role of Raymond's mother, the viciously political Eleanor Iselin, Catherine Dyer's misplaced Southern gentility undercut the monstrous nature of her character, while Gregory Konow was just a bit too jovially blustering to be convincing as Eleanor's equally ambitious husband, an unrecognized senator who sees himself as Vice President (or maybe more). Dan Ball was an affable Ben Marco, and Vanessa Liguori was coolly elegant as his girlfriend Eugenie Cheyney. In supporting roles, Michael Ariema and Julie Torsiello played a variety of characters with ease; the multi-talented JT Patton infused all of his roles with something more.
Tantalo's production was simple, with no set and few props (a problem considering how much of the plot depends on the use of playing cards), although having the entire cast on stage throughout did help to give the show some visual interest. Christian Couture and Miriam Sohn's costumes were unassuming but correct, and if Jason Rainone's lightning-fast lighting did much to establish the appropriately dark atmosphere, it was Jim O'Gara's original music and sound design that fully exploited and delivered the requisite punch that was missing elsewhere.
What is remarkable about The Manchurian Candidate is its prescient ability to speak as if ripped from current headlines, despite the fact that Condon's novel was originally published in 1959 at the height of the cold war. Written as a response to the McCarthy witch-hunts, its tale of governmental limitations to personal freedom should leave anyone experiencing it sweating as if they had emerged barely unscathed from a heated fight for life, not as cold a war as this one did.
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Copyright 2003 Doug DeVita