When a play’s subject is the Central Intelligence Agency’s attempt in 1960 to kill a democratically elected foreign leader it disliked, one might expect high political drama with indignant tone. Playwright Seth Greenland instead turns the historical stumblings of spyland into a rollicking farce with the darkest of souls. Once you’ve managed to start smiling at the shocking absurdity of Uncle Sam playing murderer, the clever “Jungle Rot” offers plenty of cynical laughs.
Far better than its initial Cleveland production, Greenland’s fast-paced, witty script deserves many more explorations. Kennedy Center money lies behind the ongoing development of “Jungle Rot,” (this production travels to Buffalo after its Cleveland premiere), and you can see why it piqued the curiosity of the capital city: In this anti-government age, inside-the-Beltway audiences would probably laugh themselves silly at this tale of government ineptitude, even if the inherent liberal sensibility would turn Newt ballistic.
Greenland found his subject in a Rolling Stone article from the mid-1980s, in which a former CIA staffer revealed that the Agency once tried to do away with Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of what was then the Congo. The local head of station (a forgotten operative on the political slow train to nowhere) was told to do the dirty deed because the target was becoming too cozy with the Soviets for American tastes.
The unlikely assassin balked, but prodded by an ambitious wife looking for spousal career revival, he finally went along with the deadly orders from Ike’s White House. Things did not go as planned. Although Greenland greatly embellishes historical fact for the purpose of the play, that true event forms its heart.
Central character John Stillman (Richmond Hoxie) becomes a well-meaning relativist shocked by the moral bankruptcy of American foreign policy. He must fend off his new colleague, Walter Clark (David Adkins), a young, naive Indiana agent, well-schooled in conservative compliance. Stillman’s wife, Patience (Kay Walbye), is a searingly nasty take on the conservative, Chanel-loving Washington wife dreaming of a peach-and-teal home in suburban Virginia.
The scientific specialist sent by Washington to help out with the murder is changed to one Dr. Gottfried (Robert Machray), a villainous poisoner straight out of James Bond. To show still more of the horrors of the ugly American abroad , Greenland also adds a cartoonish auto-parts salesman and his wife (Dudley Swetland and Lianne Kressin), two lost souls in the Congo searching for their runaway daughter. And the playwright ties everything together with three comic witch doctor-type narrators, huffing and puffing in their grass skirts and quoting liberally from “Macbeth.”
One of this play’s great strengths is that it combines highly intellectual political humor with broad physical comedy of the sort that would do Ray Cooney proud. Some of the characterizations perhaps verge too close to caricature, but there is still an appealing freshness to the script and a welcome sense of freedom from dramatic genre. Greenland’s main point seems to be that American foreign policy was compromised by ignorance and arrogance. By making his audience laugh, he achieves that aim very powerfully.
Farce, of course, is far from easy to perform, and it’s never been a great Cleveland Play House strength. Roger T. Danforth’s production sports a splendid, constantly shifting setting by James Noone that should allow the director to keep things moving at a crackling speed. Sadly, the pace proves uneven and the big second-act denouement needs much cleaner comic timing if it is ever going to work properly.
There are excellent performances from Leon Addison Brown as Lumumba and the exuberant Machray as the Official CIA Poisoner, but some of the other actors do not always keep at least one foot firmly planted in the realm of truth — a grounding that’s essential for successful farce. Hoxie’s lead performance is subtle and well thought out, but undermined by too much bumbling over lines.
In an early draft of the theater’s press materials, Hoxie’s character was called Larry Devlin, the real name of the CIA agent in the Congo. But the printed program gives the surname as Stillman, and critics were carefully reminded to be sure to note this important change. The Cleveland Play House apparently received a phone call that began something like, “We hear you’re doing a play with real names.”