Anyone with an eye on the Middle East this summer will recognize the importance of dialogue and mediation. That seems to have been something implicitly understood by Jane Fonda in 1988 when the filming of romantic drama “Stanley & Iris” was threatened by protesting war vets still smarting from her anti-Vietnam protests 16 years earlier. Rather than play the haughty Hollywood star, she met her opponents face to face in an encounter now dramatized by Emmy-winning producer Terry Jastrow in an emotive if psychologically shallow one-act debuting at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and starring his wife and “Fatal Attraction” star Anne Archer.
More than 40 years after Vietnam, Jastrow speaks a language we all understand when, on the one hand, he lines up the vets, angry and bewildered at the lack of appreciation for the sacrifices they have made, and on the other, he gives us Fonda, equally outraged by a brutal foreign policy based on a flawed “domino effect” theory about communism’s likely spread to neighboring countries.
It means we know what’s at stake as soon as Jastrow establishes the scene on June 18, 1988, in St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Waterbury, Conn., long-standing home to ex-military personnel. Fonda, who is in town with Robert De Niro for the filming of Martin Ritt’s “Stanley and Iris,” has chosen to take on half a dozen adversaries (in reality, it was 26) in the certain knowledge they hate her. The veterans, a motley crew with lank hair, beards and baseball caps, can barely contain their rage that the wayward daughter of Henry Fonda and star of the frivolous “Barbarella” should even think of patronizing them with her presence. The only thing the two sides have in common is their animosity.
Filling in the picture with period news reports and documentary footage, Jastrow takes us through this unlikely encounter, moving from inarticulate outbursts and short-tempered walkouts to the crucial question of how Fonda, whatever her disagreements with U.S. policy, came to be pictured laughing, clapping and looking down the sights of a Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun designed to bring down fighters from her own country. Before the play is through, both sides will have to yield ground.
“The Trial of Jane Fonda” recalls court-room drama “12 Angry Men,” coincidentally a vehicle for Henry Fonda, who played the skeptical man forcing his fellow jurors to see beyond their prejudices. Likewise, Archer’s prim-looking Jane, in her shoulder-length blonde hair, sky-blue blouse and pastel skirt, has to raise enough doubts in the minds of her many adversaries — all of them resolved in their reactionary worldview — to be able to leave the stage if not victorious, at least in peace.
Archer plays it calm and collected to start, preferring a placid smile to the chair-throwing outbursts of the men. It gives her moral authority, although she can seem rather smug as a result — at least until Fonda’s defenses crack and she admits to a certain youthful impulsiveness.
Where the play doesn’t stand comparison to “12 Angry Men,” however, is in the subtlety of the plotting. You could overlook the way Fonda’s speeches flow with unlikely journalistic smoothness, but it’s harder to accept the speed with which the vets change from grunting rednecks to weeping victims, suddenly sharing their secret vulnerabilities like they were in a post-trauma support group. The six-against-one battle that Fonda should have found a challenge is too easy a victory for her. The right side wins, but the dice have been loaded, making the conclusion seem less than fully deserved.