Even the seemingly indefatigable Kenneth Starr appears ready to seek closure on l’affaire Lewinsky, so it’s high time the rest of us were allowed a catharsis or two. “Starr’s Last Tape,” a new comedy that premiered at the Berkshire Theater Festival last week, revisits the long and bewildering impeachment saga in a suitably surreal manner, replaying the highlights from the imagined perspective of the central figure in the ordeal, the High Inquisitor — er, I mean Independent Counsel Mr. Starr.
The solo play, loosely inspired by Samuel Beckett’s similarly titled one-acter, is written by Richard Lingeman and Victor Navasky. Navasky is the publisher of the Nation, and Lingeman a senior editor at the magazine, so no prizes for guessing where the play’s sympathies, or more accurately its antipathies, are likely to lie. And yet there is almost as much pity as scorn in the play’s portrait of what was probably the country’s last independent counsel, and such is the nature of Brian Reddy’s inspired performance that we leave more in sadness than in anger, with a grim chuckle at the follies of not just Starr but virtually everyone involved in the saga.
The play is set in Starr’s private bunker in the “indefinite future,” where the ex-independent counsel fulminates against the malignant powers of his enemies and laments his low numbers in the polls. “Why do they hate me?” he whines piteously as he begins dictating his memoirs with lip-smacking relish, replaying selections from his massive arsenal of taped depositions with evangelical glee.
Faced with the daunting task of spoofing a saga that seemed with each new revelation to put itself beyond the reach of parody, Navasky and Lingeman rely as much on fact as fiction. Indeed perhaps the funniest element in the play is the confusion it may engender in the audience, as we try to remember which of the taped excerpts re-created here are actual and which are fantastic. Listening to an actor playing Clinton suggestively read excerpts from “Leaves of Grass” to Monica, we can’t quite remember if that actually happened.
Although they are not likely to be accused of hagiography, Navasky and Lingeman have created a surprisingly engaging stage character from what might have seemed rather pallid material. Their Starr is driven by a self-righteousness based as much on his resentment at being overlooked for the Supreme Court as his fanatical piety. In Reddy’s terrific performance under the direction of Eric Hill, Starr’s buttery Southern accent is married to the mellifluous cadences of a Baptist preacher. He skulks with a weird, impish eagerness from telephone to microphone, and often succumbs to lascivious reveries about one or another of the female figures in the Clinton saga.
Navasky and Lingeman are fairly savage in imagining Starr’s prurient proclivities. The twisted Starr that the play presents seems to consider the subpoena a new form of foreplay, and even fondles La Lewinsky’s underpants at one point. He’s a blatant maniac, and mania can be very entertaining.
But Lingeman and Navasky also manage to make some telling larger points. Proudly recalling his investigation’s $ 50 million pricetag, Starr notes that that’s half the annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. “But we gave the public five times the entertainment and 10 times the smut!” he exults. Strange indeed, but probably true.