In her new play at the Kirk Douglas, Tanya Barfield isn’t content merely to catalog the racism and hypocrisy of Woodrow Wilson’s second term (1917-1921). She’s determined to underline every possible parallel proving the sins of Wilson and G.W. Bush to be “Of Equal Measure,” leading her into stilted dialogue and preposterous plotting for which helmer Leigh Silverman never settles upon an appropriately persuasive style. Result is as crudely manipulative as the World War I-era propaganda Barfield vilifies.
Forget the progressive academic and Nobel peace laureate who promoted unions, refined antitrust and spearheaded the League of Nations. This is wholly the revisionist take on Wilson (Lawrence Pressman): the unrepentant Confederate sympathizer who approved segregating a racially mixed Federal government; the “He kept us out of war” candidate who soon sent us Over There, marshalling the era’s media resources — and tossing around disloyalty accusations — to cynically rally the populace.
These Wilsonian Achilles heels, both little-known and amply historically documented, might well fascinate within a believable portrait of misapplied power run rampant, especially if the man’s idealistic principles were as much on display as his blind spots.
But unable to leave well enough alone, Barfield turns Wilson into a squeaky-voiced, hand-wringing, effeminate tool who pouts about eye irritation and tailors high-flown rhetoric to each sleazy occasion.
When revisionism descends to the level of character assassination — even though we know her target’s a president closer at hand — one questions the author’s judgment, at the very least.
Then she brandishes a Magic Marker to bring out numerous analogs to current events, from sauerkraut’s new moniker “Liberty Cabbage” — remember Freedom Fries? — to rumors of a Third World “jihad.” Once “our man,” Pancho Villa wants to sabotage oil fields against our investment interests, so now “he’s for terrorism” and approved for liquidation, though he’s “walked right off the map … needle in a haystack.” Remember, “New York’s a target.”
Surely the real-life advisers did debate these things, but credibility is undermined by Barfield’s heavy-handed, snarky style.
Scribe does no better by her fictional Norma Rae, proud White House typist Jade (Michole Briana White), whose dismay over Wilsonian Jim Crow and office sexual politics radicalizes her into leaking damaging documents. At one point brother Eugene (Christopher O’neal Warren) — a postal worker turned portraitist who wants to be a surrealist; you know the type — begs her to sleep with the boss to save his life, in a Shakespearean twist one might call “Of Equal Measure for Measure.”
But nothing comes of Jade’s leaks. Nor is there any dramatic payoff to the numbing cavalcade of White House perfidies, let alone relief from the endless, subtext-free political conversations. Barfield derides Wilson’s sledgehammer sell-the-war effort, but her own rhetorical methods are no more nuanced, especially since the mannered Bushian parallels can’t evoke much more than a tsk-tsk-how-true reaction.
Silverman’s staging reinforces the artificiality. Each Oval Office scene is so marked by speechifying and barked repetition (“Unrestricted submarine warfare!” “Unrestricted submarine warfare?”) as to play exactly like a cabinet meeting in “Blazing Saddles,” absent the pacing, variety or jokes. Set changes are muddily utilitarian, projections thrown up on surfaces to no effect.
And there’s not a fully rounded portrayal to be found among the distinguished cast. One comes to dread each Pressman entrance with its unvaried, high-pitched dithering. Michael T. Weiss, as Jade’s harassing boss, exudes sinister innuendo that even D.W. Griffith might suggest was over the top.
JD Cullum is trapped within his leprechaun accent as Wilson’s liberal conscience Tumulty, while dignity is all White can bring to her hopeless, pointless role.
Act two brings on a Kafkaesque knob named Mr. Plank, T. Ryder Smith standing up manfully (if cornily) against character’s symbolic weight in the waterboarding — sorry, interrogation — of Tumulty, to whack all that progressive rubbish out of his head.
Exiting after one session, he hisses (as so much herein is hissed), “Verisimilitude.” It’s the play’s most potent if unintended irony, in that verisimilitude and entertainment value are the two qualities it lacks in equal measure.