In certain ways, “The Manchurian Candidate’s” transition to stage is more impressive than “Sunset Boulevard’s.” Both are competing with memorable film versions, with seared-in-memory characterizations. However, the former adaptation, while being staged on a much smaller scale than the latter, offers more of an emotional punch.
The story takes place “sometime in the near future,” and the war has been changed from Korea to the Middle East.
Captain Ben Marco (John Marzilli) suffers feverish nightmares about his capture in Kuwait with fellow Marines. But his comrade, Raymond Shaw (Tim Barber), shows no distress from the peacekeeping skirmish and imprisonment.
However, Shaw has his own misery in having to deal with his controlling mother (Carrie Snodgress) and the political aspirations of his stepfather (Frank Ashmore). And around Shaw, people die. He’s been programmed by the enemy.
Under Jules Aaron’s direction, the story unfolds without a second wasted. Sliding rice-paper doors, created by set designer John Iacovelli, open or come together to launch a new scene. Often an ominous musical tone heightens a sense of foreboding.
Playwright John Lahr, theater critic for the New Yorker, based his play on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, which was more satirical than the film. Lahr has altered, with Condon’s blessing, the postwar undertones of Communist hysteria to today’s political cynicism and Japan-bashing. America no longer has a military enemy, so it has to make one up.
The play is chock-full of delicious one-liners, usually from the mouth of Shaw’s Southern-bred mother, such as, “If you’re gonna give Americans half-truths, they’ve got to be accurate.”
Snodgress glows as Mrs. Iselin, a self-assured and horrific character (whom Condon says he based on lawyer Roy Cohn). Snodgress shows the vim and poisoned vigor of this woman who knows that “nobody likes a middle-aged woman with power. No one, in fact, particularly likes a middle-aged woman.”
As Marco (Frank Sinatra’s role in the film), Marzilli convincingly reveals the man’s tortured thoughts and obsession to find the truth.
Just as convincing is Barber’s Raymond Shaw, caught between his own feelings and his manipulators.
Ashmore’s politico is the embodiment of his wife’s comment: “A pig’s bladder on a stick can get elected to the U.S. Senate.”
Equally impressive is Jon Gottlieb’s sound design, with dozens of small yet important sounds contributing to the piece. His is but one example of the numerous complex technical demands in this production that flow smoothly.