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Media Mass: Everyone in 'The Return to Morality' is angling to get his or her good side in front of the TV cameras.

Whose Morals?

City Lights pokes fun at media manipulation in 'The Return to Morality'

By Heather Zimmerman

IT SEEMS A LITTLE IRONIC that politics, a profession renowned for back-stabbing and underhandedness, has in recent years claimed "morality" and "values" as its favorite catch phrases. City Lights Theater Company taps into that irony with The Return to Morality, a funny and timely satire by Jamie Pachino that suggests that in this age of mass media in the U.S., morality--and who has the right "values" and who doesn't--is determined by those who do the best job of manipulating public opinion.

Arthur Kellogg (Jackson Davis), a political science professor, has spent five years writing The Return to Morality, a book that satirizes conservative politics. He proposes a platform so extremely right-wing (returning to slavery, blowing up abortion clinics, etc.), he's sure its absurdity will offer an obvious condemnation of conservative politics. But when his book is published and initially promoted as nonfiction, the extreme right seizes upon it. Arthur gets caught up in the ensuing hype and can't ever seem to reveal the truth about his book--although Pachino suggests that Arthur is never as powerless as he'd like to believe.

The play is structured in short episodic scenes, much like a sitcom. Director John Warren plays up this broad style; among the ensemble cast, most of whom portray three or four roles each, the performances are big, some almost caricatures. And in fact, everything feels staged in this play, but that's just Pachino's point: modern politics are based largely on appearances, not on ideas.

Davis' Arthur is convincingly flummoxed, blundering through high-profile interviews that raise increasingly thorny questions. But for all Arthur's cluelessness, Davis also shows us a slight sense of mercenary irresponsibility about the character--the lure of instant fame overwhelms him to the point that he sometimes forgets his original good intentions in writing the book. His activist wife, Jo (Nancy Sauder), acts as his conscience for as long as she can, but even with the possibility that Arthur's newfound fame as a right-wing hero might wreck their marriage, Arthur can't--and isn't necessarily completely willing to--extricate himself from the snowballing publicity.

Adrian Stapleton's set reflects the omnipresence of media in our lives, using three walls with a number of TVs set into them, as well as empty compartments that cast members can climb into to imitate those talking heads on TV. Arthur is both trapped and ensconced in his place in the spotlight, as it were. Though Pachino minces no words in pointing out that there's little made for public consumption that isn't carefully designed to get our dollars or our votes, her play (like the book Arthur wrote) is a satire and doesn't judge so much as it gives the characters enough rope to hang themselves--and their brands of morality right along with them.

The Return to Morality plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm through April 22 at City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$18. (408.295.4200)

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From the March 30-April 5, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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