A bombmaker in a basement couldn’t have concocted a more ominous recipe for political and personal tragedy than the one that churns though William Mastrosimone’s “Dirty Business.” This docudrama, receiving its world premiere at Florida Stage in Palm Beach County, may be set in the 1960s, but the intersection of love, lust, ambition and betrayal in the brutally pragmatic world of politics resonates like a CNN special report.
Rising politician John F. Kennedy (James Lloyd Reynolds) and mobster Sam Giancana (Gordon McConnell) are simultaneously having affairs with party girl Judith Exner (a winsome Elizabeth A. Davis); Giancana is pulling strings to help Kennedy get elected, and all of them are being enabled by Frank Sinatra (Jack Gwaltney), who has allegiances to each corner of the triangle.
The problem with the scenario is that vet playwright Mastrosimone (“Extremities”) throws the audience a disconcerting curve — much of this emotional train wreck is suffused with witty one-liners worthy of Oscar Wilde, double entendres recalling Redd Foxx and character-driven comedy out of Neil Simon.
While director Louis Tyrrell and his talented cast bring out all the right colors, it’s hard to make these disparate moods mesh smoothly. It’s as if someone took a laugh-laced approach to the Titanic closing in on the iceberg.
The play tries to make you connect with these flawed people and their plight, then distances you from them with steady dollops of comedy. Only in the last quarter of the evening, do most — but not all — of the laugh lines vanish. That means the play is undeniably intriguing and consistently entertaining but not compelling.
Mastrosimone aims far higher than a Camelot-era edition of “Hollywood Access Extra Tonight.” This is a morality tale about power, corruption and honor. As we watch Exner get passed from Sinatra to Kennedy to Giancana, the playwright reveals the true character of each man beneath his roguish charm.
“Good guy” Jack’s expediency exposes a lack of loyalty to anyone foolish enough to care for him. “Bad guy” Sam, while remaining a brutal criminal, emerges as the honorable person who values relationships and promises.
Most of the performances are competent: Gwaltney is a ring-a-ding-ding Sinatra unnerved at being way over his head in Jack and Sam’s worlds. Reynolds’ Jack is a charismatic but ultimately heartless politician-cum-movie star. Dan Leonard, as devious powerbroker Joe Kennedy, convincingly puts over Mastrosimone’s more lyrical contemplations on the hard realities of politics.
But the honors go to McConnell, one of the region’s finest actors. He gives us a rough-edged, balding, middle-aged brute with stunning intelligence, sharp wit and beguiling affability who makes you believe Exner could be emotionally seduced by him.
As with 95% of history plays, the script slathers on too much background and topical cultural references. Period plays set in the not-so-distant past almost always face a no-win challenge: re-creating an era convincingly enough for those who lived it; providing enough context to clue in a younger generation; and laying in a ream of exposition without it all clanging like dropped dishware.
The play would also zip along a little more smoothly with some trimming, especially of Judy and Sam’s protracted courtship scenes. It’s still absorbing to watch these people race toward the edge of the cliff, and Mastrosimone rewards the audience with a shocking finale that, while pure supposition, he has been building toward all night.