With precious little dramatic push to call its own, John Lahr’s adaptation of “The Manchurian Candidate” interests solely in answering the question of how a story best remembered as a brilliant film will be translated to the stage. The short answer: not very well.
Where the film (itself an adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel) was a delirious dive into Cold War paranoia, the play, replacing Communists with the Japanese, is a muddled exercise that manages to set the story five years hence and still smell like yesterday’s sushi.
Beneath the silly tampering, Condon’s tale of brainwashing, rampant conspiracy and political rot retains some of its intrigue. But the play mostly serves to remind how infinitely superior John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Frank Sinatra starrer was. The yarn concerns two Army buddies, Ben Marco (David Frank), an intelligence officer plagued by bad dreams stemming from his stint in a peacekeeping force in the Middle East (that locale being one of Lahr’s updates), and Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Kopp), who, during the same mission, was brainwashed to become a killing machine on command.
The two men, neither of whom can remember the details of their capture and programming, become entangled in a plot to assassinate the president. In ways only gradually revealed, the plot also involves Raymond’s stepfather, a moronic senator named Johnny Iselin (Richard Bourg), and Raymond’s mother, Eleanor (Ann Guilford-Grey), a conniving monster who is the true evil force behind the senator’s quick rise to Washington heights.
In the novel and film, Eleanor builds her husband’s career on a platform of red-baiting. For the play, Lahr — theater critic for the New Yorker — centers the character’s hatemongering on the Japanese, a tired notion that barely passes for topical even today, much less 1999. It doesn’t help that Lahr’s senator, a cartoon buffoon, seems downright tame by the odious standard set by today’s real-life hatemongers. If he is all we have to fear, the next century looks comparatively rosy.
But Lahr’s stabs at contemporizing are nothing if not haphazard, changing some details (“commies” to “Japs”) while leaving others in the Eisenhower era (the decidedly ’50s-style Ben refers to “shinola” while his g.f. dismisses brainwashing as “science fiction”). Most damning of all, though, is that no modification of detail can modernize the Cold War temperature that chills Condon’s story. And why should it be otherwise? “The Manchurian Candidate” functions best as a satire of its times. Take away the times and you’re left with a not very thrilling thriller.
Lahr also doesn’t seem overly concerned with dialogue, penning one clinker after another. “Admit you’ve got post-traumatic stress syndrome and I’ll gladly help you cope with it,” says Ben’s lover, Eugenie (Alicia Genetski). Poor Genetski is given a bigger hoot yet when, as the play devolves into unintentional camp during the assassination scene, her Eugenie spots the laser trained on Eleanor. “Hey!” says Eugenie, “she’s got a red spot on her forehead!”
The Art & Work Ensemble production is as uninspired as the play. Perry Liu’s stiff direction more often than not has the actors declaiming their lines directly to the audience, and his absurd handling of a busy black-clad chorus has scenes involving a pack of reporters resembling a high school production of “The Front Page.” Lead performances are marked by overacting, with Guilford-Grey seeming less like the Angela Lansbury of the film than Joan Collins of “Dynasty.”
Given the lurching, sketchy feel of the production, this “Manchurian Candidate” could be considered a Cliff Notes version. But at 2 1/2 hours, these notes drag. Might as well read the real thing. Or better yet, watch the movie.