Mark St. Germain’s “Camping With Henry & Tom” opens with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Warren G. Harding crashing their Model T into a tree. They’d have been better off crashing into a play.
This often witty exercise is just that and nothing more, ultimately failing to make the most of an intriguing historical footnote. In 1921, the two inventors and the president (along with industrialist Harvey S. Firestone, not depicted in St. Germain’s account) went on a much-publicized camping retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The famous men were hardly isolated — family members and reporters also populated the temporary tent city — but the playwright takes a dramatic liberty by posing a what-if: Suppose the three men had gone for a drive and, after accidentally hitting a deer and crashing into a tree, were lost deep in the woods, away from public scrutiny, free to drop their public personae. What would be the outcome of such an episode?
Talk and more talk is St. Germain’s answer. The playwright is good enough to make the talk witty, at times even illuminating, and he’s assisted in the endeavor by topnotch actors, but the limitations of the conceit become apparent long before the trio finds its way back to civilization. By then, the play has become little more than a good example of the intellectual parlor game in which historical personages are invited to someone’s idea of the ultimate dinner party.
Fortunately, St. Germain has a clever touch with dialogue, and he keeps this woodland encounter bristling with humor and finely etched characterizations. His cock-sure Ford (John Cunningham) is American optimism gone extreme, a man whose patriarchal notions border on the fascistic.
Harding (Ken Howard), on the other hand, is more heart than brains, an unambitious man pushed to success by a fierce coterie of supporters, in his own words achieving the country’s highest political office only because he looks “like a president.”
And then there’s Edison (Robert Prosky), a seemingly cold and cynical man who uses barbs to express his disillusionment with humanity, but whose well-concealed conscience becomes that of the play.
St. Germain uses Ford’s political ambitions to drive the plot. The auto magnate virtually abducts his companions, conniving to spend time alone with the president in order to gain support for his plan to purchase — at a minimal cost — a massive hydroelectric facility that Ford believes could alter the course of the nation. He also wants to become president, and is not above sleazy blackmail to depose Harding.
Woven throughout the political maneuvering are observations on everything from golf (says Ford, “I felt like a dog throwing its own stick”) to inventions of the modern age (“We’re toymakers, Henry,” says Edison. “That’s all we are.”). The weightiest pronouncements are left to the inventor of the light bulb, who doubts not only his value to humanity but the ability of anyone, up to and including Jesus Christ, to lessen human suffering.
Such lofty moments seem to be the play’s reason for being, yet it’s those moments where the play is weakest, turning most clearly into a talking-heads exercise.
The actors dig in with gusto, though, on James Leonard Joy’s hyper-real set, and Paul Lazarus’ direction is surprisingly mobile for a relatively static work.
Perhaps the play would work better trimmed to one act. Like countless campers before, this trip outlasts its energy.