Photograph by Dave Lepori
Swing set: The attorney general (Kevin Kennedy) helps the president (Kevin Blackton) stay on top of his game in 'The White House Murder Case.'
San Jose Stage revives Vietnam-era satire 'The White House Murder Case'
By Marianne Messina
JUDGING FROM events in the Oval Office of Jules Feiffer's 1970 play The White House Murder Case, power games don't change much between high school cliques and presidential secretaries. The minions of President Palmer (Kevin Blackton)—Attorney General Cole (Kevin Kennedy), Secretary of Defense Parson (Gary S. Martinez), Postmaster General Stiles (William Ontiveros) and Professor Sweeney (Martin Rojas-Dietrich)—snicker about the secretary of state being on the outs. In a blowback of friendly fog (thanks to an unpredictable wind), 750 American troops have just been taken out by their own lethal gas bombs, and Postmaster Stiles quips, "Secretary of State still hasn't been told, ha, ha." Servile and self-positioning, the secretaries are united in their disapproval of the one person who doesn't suck up, the First Lady, Mrs. Palmer (Diahanna Davidson). Mrs. Palmer is an inconvenient, picketing liberal on whom the president tests his lies, just to see how they'll float. And the repartee is tasty.
Besides the childish roots of power politics, Feiffer's satire hinges on the inherent abdication of responsibility such a system encourages. On the battlefield in Brazil, a colonel (Bruce Kerans), a lieutenant (Mark J. Hetrick, also the show's military consultant) and a general (Randall King) play authorization tag, ducking words of unequivocal command to release the gas. And once disaster hits, the president and his secretaries try to spin a story that will be as believable as it is palatable to the public.
San Jose Stage Company handles the back-and-forth locations (the battlefield in this Vietnam-era play was only added after a suggestion by original director Alan Arkin) with a setup by director Ray Garrett and set designer Michael Walsh that is visually divine. The big furniture in opulent dark wood, the velvet stool coverings, the royal-blue floor marked with the familiar eagle-centric seal are situated in the theater's floor area. The battlefront sits, overhung with gnarly Spanish moss, on a raised platform behind the oval office, veiled by a gray scrim. Though generally one area is darkened while action occurs in the other, both locations can be perceived at the same time. One space is the dirty secret of the other, and together they form a rich veneer with a corrupt core.
Though Act 1 of this play is bright and funny, intriguing and fast-paced, let me say, without being a spoiler, that the murder (at the end of the act) is a disappointment. With considerably less tension and complexity, Act 2 veers off toward the light murder-mystery genre (who committed the murder and how to explain it). Delightful for a couple of minutes, the murder-mystery format grows quickly yawnsome. Overall, the cast members are a credible group of secretaries who leave the humor to Feiffer's words. Though Martinez' secretary of defense sported the occasional Massachusetts lilt, it is Kennedy who plays the coldly clever attorney general (was that intentional name-casting?) King is perversely amusing as Gen. Pratt. As a victim of the nerve gas, Pratt pulls his half-paralyzed leg onto the seat with his cane. Wearing dark sunglasses and a neck brace and with blood-red shrapnel pits over his face, Pratt speaks into a microphone, his artificial voice box dangling from his neck. Not only is he a costuming wonder, but as Pratt offers dispassionate advice and predictions, King gives Pratt a subtle blend of the specialist's pride and the military man's sense of semper fi—and the truer Pratt rings, the funnier he gets.
As well, Feiffer documents the way language is deformed in service to politics in the most enjoyable ways. Professor Sweeney, who invented and implemented the gas for testing purposes, offhandedly notes that it has "certain progressive side effects." The soldiers refer to it as "peace gas," coming from their "peace arsenal." As the secretaries talk of things like "prorating the casualties," someone suggests explaining the murder as "it could have been an accident, a hunting accident." Either history repeats or someone rewrites it.
The White House Murder Case, a San Jose Stage Company production, plays Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through April 29 at the Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $20-$45. (408.283.7142)
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