It’s not often one finds a 60-year-old play that’s as timely as tonight’s CNN News. But Theatre 40 has discovered such a gem in Maxwell Anderson’s “Both Your Houses,” a bitter, cynical drama about the behind-the-scenes machinations in the committee rooms of Congress.
In this Pulitzer Prize-winning 1933 play, Anderson portrays a U.S. House of Representatives populated almost exclusively with greedy, corrupt men who are far more interested in lining their pockets than serving the national interest.
Idealism is in pitifully short supply–that is, until the arrival of newly elected Rep. Alan McClean, the son of a crusading Nevada newspaper publisher who has been elected on a reform platform.
McClean is appalled to discover that his first committee meeting consists largely of vote trading. He watches in horror as veteran congressman Simeon Gray attempts to spread around enough special favors to get a key bill passed while keeping the total cost low enough to avoid a presidential veto.
The plot consists largely of McClean’s attempt to throw a wrench into this wasteful and corrupt process.
The result contains hints of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Born Yesterday,” but Anderson’s play (which is set during the Hoover administration) is far more bleak and despairing than either of those better-known works. He saw little chance any of this would change and time has proven him correct.
“Both Your Houses” is a flawed work; Maxwell presents his message in a heavy-handed way, and his characters tend to two-dimensionality. But the dialogue remains fresh and sometimes funny and the playwright’s cynicism perfectly suits the 1990s.
At Theatre 40 under Michael Arabian’s direction, the acting is disappointingly variable.
Among the best are those by Robert Nadder, who brings an icy air of authority to the role of the House whip, and William Frankfather, who brings blustery charm to his role as a particularly self-serving, but unusually self-aware congressman.
Marcus Smythe takes a rather too predictable aw-shucks approach to McClean. The playwright suggests in the later scenes that he, too, has a dark side; specifically, he suffers from the blindness to human suffering one often finds in a zealot.
One hopes the audience doesn’t miss Maxwell’s larger point, which is that all this could not go on were it not for a lazy and/or indifferent electorate. The company has placed voter registration cards in the lobby, which is a not-so-subtle way of reinforcing that theme.