Three years after his 1985 semidocumentary “The Normal Heart” took on public and private apathy in the face of the AIDS crisis, Larry Kramer turned his white-hot sights onto the entire U.S. power elite — including the complicit gay men within it — in his “play about a farce” designed to stir up the public to “Just Say No” to evil, hypocritical leadership. Though underlying conditions are arguably even worse now than in 1988, dated nature of script and careless staging blunt the effect of Kramer’s clarion call.
Into the Georgetown home of Foppy Schwartz (Ezra Buzzington), social butterfly and confidant to fat cats’ ladies, comes a parade of thinly disguised figures from the first presidential administration of — let’s just call them, as the play does, “Mommie and Daddy Potentate.” In the classic way of farce, the room has many doors, and the dramatis personae arrive with secret desires and an irrepressible need to run in and out of those doors.
They include a nellie First Son (Ron Morehouse) in ballet slippers; the closeted mayor (Stephen Alan Carver) of “our largest northeastern city” who craves boytoys while denying the existence of a plague; a department store magnate (David Wilcox) into S&M; the First Mommie herself (Sarah Lilly), who wears red Galanos; and … you get the idea.
Or do you? Those who didn’t live through the era, and even many who did, will be hard-pressed to place some of those seen and talked about, and will be even more clueless during the blizzard of gossip, hard facts and innuendo just this side of actionability that cascades from characters’ mouths like Hyde Park soapbox ranters.
If farce benefits from immediacy and specificity, then a 2007 “Just Say No” has two strikes against it from the get-go.
With the cultural references as remote from aud’s knowledge base as the members of James Garfield’s cabinet, the fun has to come from expert comic playing, and the impact from one’s realization that the same hypocrisy and corruption are still going on now. In the former respect, at least, helmer Trevor Biship’s production comes up woefully short.
Morehouse, and Jennifer Ann Evans as an amateur dominatrix, get the idea that farce has to be played for real, with strong intentions and yet utter ease. Most of the cast mugs and indicates outrageously, so convinced what they’re doing is funny that the spectator sits stone-faced.
One, Inger Tudor as Electra the maid and Kramer’s mouthpiece, is too real. Her lines are mostly footnotes reminding us of the perfidy of our leaders, and Tudor’s face is a taut mask of anger practically defying us to laugh. Her thrusts would more effectively hit home if they came from a friendlier place.
Play’s spine is really the re-education, not to say radicalization, of Foppy, the self-described “hag fag” who collaborates with the enemy. Buzzington pats at his hair and indulges in snaps and eye-rolls and high-pitched squeals without ever persuading the audience that he’s found his niche trolling in the corridors of power.
He sighs and exhales and pleads for mercy, as if he couldn’t wait for all these dreadful creatures to leave. What would Foppy rather be doing? Reading Proust? We need to see this master of scandal in his element, enjoying every new mishap and most relishing those moments when all seems lost. Buzzington is directed to play the patsy rather than the puppeteer.
Meanwhile, the precision that farce requires is not much in evidence here, with multiple dropped cues and shaky timing. Doors are dutifully slammed according to the farceur’s manual, but without modulation they amount to an assault.
Kramer certainly does want to assault, or at least enlighten, and a revised epilogue endeavors to connect play’s worldview to the scandals and follies of the present day. A farce may end on a melancholy note — Alan Bennett’s “Habeas Corpus” is perhaps the classic example — but it has to be earned, and this “Just Say No” isn’t funny or true enough to pull off the desired coda.