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Of Equal Measure
July 18, 2008
By Les Spindle
The notion that history repeats itself is stretched beyond the breaking point in Tanya Barfield's problematic new play. This hodgepodge of fact and fiction takes a jaundiced look at the presidency of Woodrow Wilson (Lawrence Pressman), attempting to portray that chapter in American history as a mirror to the playwright's views on our nation's current political unrest. Director Leigh Silverman leads a generally capable ensemble, but to little avail. Barfield's heavy-handed exploration of fascistic government practices succeeds neither as polemic nor as drama.
Set in 1914-19, the play centers on the fictional Jade Kingston (Michole Briana White), an African-American woman who rises from poverty to a coveted position as a White House stenographer, reporting to Wilson adviser Edward Christianson (Michael T. Weiss), who we soon discover is a ruthless advocate of segregation. Defying the public's wishes, the capricious Wilson leads the U.S. into World War I. Among the tactics his office employs to save face is to launch pro-government propaganda campaigns, using African Americans as the primary scapegoats. Kingston faces moral dilemmas in trying to hold her hard-earned job while standing up for what's right.
White makes a valiant effort in the focal role, but she can't anchor the diffuse and confusingly plotted story. Playing another noble character victimized by the political maneuvering is JD Cullum as Joseph Tumulty, White House chief of staff, a fiercely liberal Irish American. The actor masters a spot-on dialect and skillfully depicts manic energy, yet he can't salvage a hokey scene in which Tumulty is violently interrogated by a White House thug (T. Ryder Smith), who seems to have slipped in from a Martin Scorsese gangster melodrama. An equally overwrought villain is Weiss' slimy opportunist. Pressman, usually a consummate actor, can't do anything to make the wimpy ineffectual leader that Barfield has written believable. This caricature seems tailor-made for a political cartoon with a wisecrack about G.W. Bush in the caption. Trying their best in myriad supporting roles are Christopher O'Neal Warren, Dennis Cockrum, Scott Dawson, Michael Hyland, and Joseph C. Phillips. A handsome production design provides the grace and fluidity that the incoherent script lacks.
Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 1 & 6:30 p.m. (Except Thu. 8:30 p.m. Jul. 17 & 24.) Jul. 11-27. (213) 628-2772. www.centertheatregroup.org.
© 2008 Nielsen Business Media, Inc.