A.R. Gurney adds a playwright’s voice to the chorus of disapproval surrounding George W. in this impish piece of agitprop, directed with understated wit by Jim Simpson and adorned by lively comic performances from Sigourney Weaver and John Lithgow. The evening turns on a provocative conceit: What if, way back when the future prexy was just a hard-partying Yalie, he dallied with a Vassar lass and got into a spot of trouble– which his high-powered family promptly got him out of. Three decades on, the Vassar girl is a rich, unhappy Connecticut wife, mad as hell at his policies and intent on penning a book that could expose the hypocrisy underpinning some of his most loudly promulgated opinions.
To that end, Mrs. Farnsworth (Weaver) has signed up for a writing workshop. Crisply coiffed and meticulously (if subtly) made up in cashmere and pearls, she’s a bit out of place among the grungy young students. She’s a bit late, too. Entering breathless, she begins a disjointed aria of apology that reveals her to be a classic specimen of the Wasp species. Gently demurring at her instructor’s use of her first name, she cites her beloved grandmother’s rules: “Never let people call you by your first name if they work for you. Or if you’ve known them for less than three years. Or if you’ve never kissed them.”
Weaver, criminally underrated as a comic actress, has a field day as this cartoonishly chipper woman, with her quaintly corny vocabulary (“Oh boy!” is about as outre as she gets) and general sense of astonishment at her own gumption. It’s a breezy, funny, fanciful performance that darkens convincingly as the deeper layers of Mrs. F’s disenchantment with the placid surfaces of her prosperous life come to be exposed.
After Mrs. Farnsworth blithely reads the first paragraph of her “novel,” a dreamy paean to the ski slopes — and the boys — of her privileged youth, Gordon (Danny Burstein), the instructor, starts badgering her for concrete details. It emerges that the college student she’s writing about is “the scion of a distinguished Republican family.” Grandpa was a senator; dad has presidential ambitions. When their golden boy got his girl pregnant, a big-shot lawyer came in to fix things, sending her off to the Caribbean with $10,000. She reluctantly took the money, timid at the prospect of outraging her Back Bay relations.
By this point, Gordon’s interest has moved from literary to political, although Mrs. F never actually acknowledges that “Miles” is really W. “I’m impressed and I’ll tell you why, Mrs. Farnsworth,” he says, fervently, ignoring her coy, half-hearted evasions. “It suggests in no uncertain terms that our current administration is built on hypocrisy, bribery and corruption.”
This kind of talk will not inspire paroxysms of shock or outrage from the folks trekking to Tribeca for an evening at the Flea Theater. Most in the audience are likely to agree that, for evidence of Bush misdeeds, recourse to fiction is entirely superfluous. But on those occasions when Gordon or his new student rant about “the blind, selfish, unwarranted power now presiding in Washington,” the play devolves instantly into an op-ed piece masquerading as clunky theater.
Happily, Gurney doesn’t dally too long on such polemics. He has other business in hand, exploring the strains in a loving but complicated marriage between a man and a woman from the same social milieu who happen to find themselves on opposite sides of the political fence. More intriguingly, Gurney suggests that respect for old ideals might keep certain segments of the American establishment from wielding their power in the rough and tumble of contemporary politics.
It’s revealed that Mrs. Farnsworth’s husband, a card-carrying member of the GOP, has not greeted her literary aspirations with particular warmth — unless burning her manuscript counts. Gordon, played as a determined terrier by Burstein, is scandalized, and suggests, preposterously, that Mrs. F move in with him while they reconstruct the book. But before she can seriously consider the proposal, Mr. Farnsworth himself shows up, demanding to see his wife.
This Republican monster appears in the disarmingly gentle person of Lithgow, giving a witty performance that playfully skirts caricature, exemplified by an accent so officiously tony he makes William F. Buckley sound like Eminem. Farnsworth gracefully parries Gordon’s combative accusations, dismissing his wife’s doodlings as a “piece of fiction, top to bottom.” Mental illness is alleged, decorously.
Gurney never really clears up the contradictory pictures of her behavior presented by the charming Mrs. Farnsworth and her gallant husband, who spar with restraint underscored by both sincere affection and weary truculence. A longstanding chronicler of the wonderful world of Wasps, the playwright suggests that tribal codes trump any other considerations anyway. Mr. F finally silences his wife’s incendiary talk by announcing that she couldn’t possibly write the book because her grandmother wouldn’t approve — she’d be “betraying her class” and all the values it, and grandma, hold dear. Nutty though she may be, she is not so loony as to take that grievous step.
The play’s ending is strained, as a cowed Mrs. Farnsworth is shown, sentimentally, trying to connect with the other students (seated in the audience, they’ve been an intermittent chorus throughout). “I don’t want to be exclusionary anymore,” she says plaintively, and then provides a little homily that strikes a silly, hortatory note: “Maybe if we all could learn to look at people not as good and evil, or Republicans or terrorists, but simply as fellow human beings with different first names, things might improve in this country.” Yes, and maybe Miss Manners can convince Ralph Nader to exit the presidential race, too.