A life reduced to inessentials

The Packwood Papers

By Karen Houppert and Stephen Nunns
Directed by Eric Nightengale
78th St. Theatre Lab
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Michael Koroly

Using historical figures in drama always raises ticklish questions, especially with a recent political figure. How, for instance, to present Senator Robert Packwood? Forced to resign for sexually harassing quite a number of women over 10 years, is he an arch-cad? A victim of politically correct posturing, if not partisan attack? A Jekyll-and-Hyde figure, ardently supporting feminist causes in public yet preying on vulnerable staffers in private?

Karen Houppert and Stephen Nunns have plowed through Packwood's sworn testimony before the Senate Ethics Committee, his recorded diary, his press conferences, as well as the affidavits of his accusers and other congressional transcripts and edited them into a script following Packwood through the height of the scandal.

First of all, it must be recognized that the record never ``speaks for itself.'' Reducing 10,000 pages of public-domain material into a 90-minute play demands some sort of agenda, if for no reason other than the need for a playable text. In her dispatches on topical political flashpoints in the Village Voice, Houppert has evinced a trenchant, clear-eyed (rare for that paper) skill at interpreting social meaning. And, through the swirl of events and perspectives she and Nunns chronicle and arrange, an image emerges: Packwood as a jerk, but hardly a malignant one. Indeed, he appears an exemplar of what can be called the ``banality of machismo,'' his lewd advances less an attempt to assert patriarchal privilege than a pathetic effort to bolster his attenuated virility and sexual worth.

Whatever the authors' dramaturgical impulses, the questions remains as to whether this all works as drama. In retrospective reflection, viewpoints and incidents cast intellectual light on each other. And the scenes do linger in memory for some time: alternately eerie, blackly comic, and melancholy.

At the center of this moral miasma, Toby Wherry as Packwood gave a vibrantly three-dimensional performance. Very funny in his reading of the man's pathetic swagger, he also flips open the hood at important points to afford a glimpse of emotional panic and self-loathing. Wherry may just be a bit too young for the part, though, or in need of some more age make-up; especially if the sense of someone feeling dislocated by the shifting mores of a new generation is a factor. (Packwood argued, however speciously, that men of his age and era had been ambushed by newly hyper-virtuous codes of professional conduct.) Ruth Nightengale, Kimberly Reiss, and Katherine Heasley all did solid, earnest work as different complainants, with Heasley chillingly amoral as Packwood's female ``hatchet man'' in attempting to smear those who accused him. John Marino and Michael Puzzo were adequate yet unremarkable as various senators, staffers, and reporters.

Director Eric Nightengale did make some odd choices of tableaux, as well as some puzzling couplings on the periphery of the action. He did, though, show a rigorous consistency of vision and a knack for inverting a cliche into something more meaningful (i.e., the farcical chase around a desk suddenly turning quite physically ugly). Nancy Brous's costumes for the men were straightforward business wear, but, for the three women, she chose the same red power suit with very slight variations on accessories.

Finally, Nightengale's own sound design made beautifully evocative use of Sinatra's recordings, highlighting both a generational mindset and underscoring dramatic moments, such as a haunting closing image of Packwood plaintively singing along to ``Angel Eyes.''

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 1
Acting 2
Set 1
Costumes 1
Lighting/Sound 2
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly

Return to OOBR Index
Return to Home Page