Friday, October 31, 2008

Hung up

Annette Miller in action in Martha Mitchell Calling. Photo by Kippy Goldfarb.

Sometimes seasons inadvertently beg rhetorical questions, and this one, laden as it is with new work, all but wonders aloud, "When is a play ready for production?" Alas, in regards to most of the shows this fall, the answer would have to be, "Not this one, not yet!" Few of the new dramas have felt finished; and oddly, those that have - November and The Lieutenant of Inishmore - have been farces in which construction outshone content.

But now we're confronted with a show that isn't just unfinished, it hasn't even been started yet - Martha Mitchell Calling, by Jodi Rothe, at the Central Square Theater through November 9. That the show is little more than story-theatre agitprop is all the more depressing given that it features a commanding lead performance from Annette Miller as Martha, and an amusing turn from Timothy Sawyer as husband John. It's also graced with a simple but evocative set from Cameron Anderson and nearly-ideal costumes by Govane Lohbauer. And director Daniela Varon certainly keeps things moving. In fact, the only thing that's missing from the production is the play.

There are, of course, the usual excuses for putting the show on anyway - "strong, passionate woman," blah blah blah (you know that drill), and of course the fact that the Bush administration has been repeating the sins of the Nixon administration, only this time without the brains, or the fraught moral weight. In Nixon's day, we fondly recall, the bad guys tended to eat themselves up with guilt; you could almost feel the POTUS rotting away beneath the glib mask he wore at his press conferences. (Meanwhile you get the impression Bush and Cheney sleep like babies; such is the innocent confidence of the new, improved evil.)

But be that as it may, a playwright's first duty is to his or her subject, and I'm afraid Jodi Rothe has done Martha Mitchell wrong. The playwright whitewashes her, of course - Martha was a Republican from Arkansas who hated the Kennedys (what does that tell you?), yet her politics are given a free pass, and her many unpleasant antics (she sometimes physically attacked reporters) are here reduced to cute sexual faux pas like showing up in a hula skirt to a party.

Still, this is only the standard for hagiography. But Rothe also robs her subject of her real story, her actual drama. Martha Mitchell was a woman who called reporters about the crimes her husband was in the process of committing. Yes, she "told the truth"; yes, her husband's boss was a bad man. But art is supposed to be about humanity and moral complexity, and Martha's story is nothing if not complex - indeed, when you ponder that it was she who lured John Mitchell from the Democratic to the Republican fold (incredibly, he once worked for Kennedy!), and then betrayed him - perhaps inadvertently - to the press, you immediately see in her story the outline of classic tragedy.

But Rothe only sees an opportunity to trudge point-by-point through the Watergate scandal. We get no substantial scenes between John and Martha, even though apparently he had her forcibly drugged, and even though once convicted, he opined that life in jail was preferable to "spending the rest of my life with Martha Mitchell." There's quite an arc there, for both parties. But you'd never guess it from this script: John never makes the primal claim for loyalty that you feel the jerk was entitled to, and Martha has no dawning moment of self-awareness - even though guilt was probably one reason for her alcoholic tailspin.

Even more damaging to Rothe's M.O. is the fact that using Martha as a tourguide to Watergate leaves out key points in the drama; truth be told, she was only a sideshow during much of the scandal, so in Martha Mitchell Calling we don't hear a thing about John Dean, or Sam Ervin, or Woodward and Bernstein, and we only get passing mentions of Deep Throat and John Sirica. So the play not only fails as drama, it fails as history. No wonder it's so dull. Miller and Sawyer do what they can with the reams of exposition, and have an amusingly frisky rapport (Martha's open sexuality is another point the play relentlessly hammers home), but they never get a chance to show us what they could really do with these characters - because, oddly, you get the feeling the playwright doesn't want to give them the chance. To Rothe, Martha Mitchell is just a puppet - much as she was for Nixon, at least for awhile - only now she serves a different kind of politics.

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