Ed Siegel

On stage, political satire is too tame

By Ed Siegel
November 6, 2008
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IN KEEPING with the season, many Boston-area theaters have been staging political plays, ranging from a drama about Martha Mitchell to David Mamet's satirical take on the process by which we elect our presidents. This should all be to the good. In times like this, we need all the perspective we can get.

The problem is that compared with the real thing, these plays, with one notable exception, are pretty dull. In a lively political season, these theatrical barbs have less sting than, say, TV satires - and can barely compete with reality.

The presidential campaign has been rich, between the historic election of a black president and the hysterical material that the two running mates have donated to "Saturday Night Live" and other TV shows.

Yet theater isn't keeping up. As I sat through Mamet's "November" at the Lyric Stage Company and "Martha Mitchell Calling" by the Nora Theatre Company at the spiffy new Central Square Theater, I couldn't escape the feeling I was watching pretty tepid stuff, despite excellent work by Annette Miller as Mitchell and Richard Snee as an unpopular fictional president.

Jodi Rothe's "Martha Mitchell Calling," playing through Sunday, is an amusing enough recollection of a pathetic Watergate figure. But the play never convinced me that Mitchell's story has much to say about current political reality, or that the play gets much beyond History Channel hagiography. I was infinitely more interested in what Sarah Palin had to say (and not say) to Katie Couric than what Mitchell gurgled to political reporters in the '70s.

The satire of Mamet's "November" (through Nov. 15) falls short as well. Mamet takes a shotgun approach to politics, sending up a dim-witted president who tries to blackmail the turkey industry while making anti-PC remarks to an Indian and a lesbian speechwriter. There are the usual Mametian laughs at outrageous language and treacherous human relations.

But this kind of satire tells us nothing we don't know. Three words: Joe the plumber. And if reality itself doesn't do it for you, Mamet's satire doesn't hold a candle to that of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central, or Sarah Silverman and others on the Internet.

Colbert uses a Bill O'Reilly-like persona to deliver devastating shreddings of the right, as when he chastised conservative pundits like Peggy Noonan for dumping on Palin when they had helped create George W. Bush, a Frankenstein monster of know-nothingism. The spoof ends by showing Palin with a white streak through her beehive a la Elsa Lanchester in "The Bride of Frankenstein." Stewart's nightly riffs on Obama the "socialist" and McCain with his air quotes have been equally sharp.

Theater's great ability is to present a heightened reality, one that takes us out of our world to cast a perspective we don't get elsewhere. That's what Anne Washburn's "The Communist Dracula Pageant" (through Sunday) at the American Repertory Theatre tries to do by conflating Romania's Cold War rulers with Vlad "Dracula" Tepes, but in the end it's just a jumble of surrealist pieces.

So the one winner in the political sweepstakes locally is Martin McDonagh's "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" at the New Repertory Theatre (through Nov. 16) in Watertown. This is the story of a mad Irish terrorist wreaking havoc on those he thinks killed his cat. True, the New Rep production isn't nearly as funny as the New York version from a few years ago. That's a problem because, for audience members to appreciate the distasteful characters and material, they have to be laughing so hard that the inner censor disappears.

What I love about McDonagh's Irish plays, though, is their scabrous anti-ethnocentricity. After decades of playwrights celebrating how great it is to be black or Jewish or gay or female or Latino, McDonagh goes back to Clifford Odets's "Awake and Sing" or the novels of James Joyce to say that defining oneself by one's ethnicity is narrow and, in the end, harmful.

And if that doesn't have resonance this season after Barack Obama's victory, you can call me Joe the plumber.

Ed Siegel, a freelance writer, is a former theater and television critic for the Globe.

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