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Even without its compelling characters and smart reversals, "Fair Game" would be worth seeing just to help one remember what an apolitical play about American politics is like.

Even without its compelling characters and smart reversals, “Fair Game” would be worth seeing just to help one remember what an apolitical play about American politics is like. Karl Gajdusek’s new drama deftly and responsibly sidesteps the shouting matches that can result from a wrong word about abortion or Social Security and instead focuses intensely on the dirty tricks played behind the victory banners. That power corrupts may not be the most original message, but it’s not getting any less true with age.

Almost every scene in “Fair Game” opens with simple, inspirational language culled from an historically important speech, from Nixon’s backup in case the lunar lander had crashed to Lincoln’s first inaugural.

The simplicity in those words belies the contorted world of the Werthams, a political family ruled by the widowed Karen (Joy Franz). She’s a popular governor and newly christened Democratic presidential candidate, but her life inside the Beltway is about to take a backseat to family troubles in the gubernatorial mansion.

Those problems arrive in the form of Karen’s son Simon (Chris Henry Coffey), a Princeton history professor whose 19-year-old Republican girlfriend, Elizabeth (Sarah-Doe Osborne), is one of his students. It’s a dicey situation that Karen’s opponent, Bill Graber (Ray McDavitt), is all too eager to exploit, much to the fury and grudging admiration of Karen’s Machiavellian handler Miranda (Caralyn Kozlowski).

While Karen may have to face the public fallout, Simon and Miranda have to figure out how to fix things without getting Mom/the boss’s hands too dirty by association with either the murkily consensual relationship between Simon and his youthful lady friend or the really foul dirt that Miranda hopes to dig up and use against Graber.

Karen, Miranda shrewdly observes, has all of the admirable qualities that would make her a great president without any of the despicable qualities that would make her a great candidate.

In one of the play’s best scenes, Graber and Karen hold a practice debate on the issues, with Miranda picking not only the topics but the positions Graber will take. All the characters think Graber will fumble awkwardly defending ideals he’s supposed to stand against — gay marriage, Social Security reform — but his total lack of ethical restraints frees him to deliver stirring rhetoric even when Miranda orders, “Raise taxes, crash the markets and bring back the draft.” The spin doctor is in.

The actors all acquit themselves admirably, particularly Kozlowski and Osborne. Both their characters exist only in the background in the world of the play, but liberal Miranda and conservative Elizabeth are clearly the two smartest individuals onstage. It would be interesting to see another scene from “Fair Game” in which they go head to head — a sort of steel cage match for amoral idealists.

Gajdusek’s play isn’t quite perfect — Simon is too easily excused for sleeping with Elizabeth, for one thing. For another, Elizabeth seems to have all the desirable qualities you’d potentially find in a hot teenage Princetonian and none of the undesirable ones.

Those are minor quibbles, and anyway, Simon and Elizabeth’s improbably happy ending plays second thematic fiddle to the depraved circus that Miranda and Graber are making of the presidential race.

The horrors that Gajdusek finds in his characters are disturbing not so much because they’re the worst things one person could do to another but because they look familiar. The political discourse in this country has been badly debased, and it takes a play that refuses to participate in the discourse proper to make that point effectively.

Fair Game

Theater Row/Lion; 88 seats; $18 top

Production

A Genesius Theater Group and South Arc Stage presentation of a play in two acts by Karl Gajdusek. Directed by Andrew Volkoff.

Creative

Set, Brian Prather; costumes, Sarah Smith; lighting, Jim Milkey; sound and original music, Matt O'Hare; production stage manager, Barbara Kielhofer. Opened Aug. 20, 2007. Reviewed Aug. 19. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Simon Werthman - Chris Henry Coffey Miranda Carter - Caralyn Kozlowski Elizabeth Rain - Sarah-Doe Osborne Gov. Karen Werthman - Joy Franz Sen. Bill Graber - Ray McDavitt

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