Stephen Belber’s new play “McReele” has a lot on its mind: truth and honesty in public and private life, media manipulation, faith in the judicial system, the packaging of a political persona, redemption from past disgrace. Like John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” it scrutinizes moral certainty and the suitability of a man to hold a position of power and influence. But despite enlisting the same capable directing hand in Doug Hughes, Belber’s play rarely musters more than a dim echo of that far superior work’s bristling tensions, remaining instead a talky, only faintly absorbing examination of poorly articulated issues.
As in his “Match,” Belber again constructs an emotionally volatile situation and fails to sink his teeth into its dramatic possibilities in any satisfying way. Unlike his earlier, pithier “Tape,” scribe rambles inordinately, his moral and ethical questions never fully coalescing into urgent human conflicts. There’s also a certain strain evident in the convoluted rant’s bid for provocative political currency, not to mention naivete in its shocked recoil at the standard compromises and deceptions of an election campaign.
The political aspirant of the title is Darius McReele (Anthony Mackie), a death-row inmate at the opening of the play, incarcerated since he was 17 for a murder he claims was committed by a drug-running friend from his ill-spent youth.
His postings on the prison’s Web site attract the attention of Delaware newspaper editor Rick Dayne (Michael O’Keefe), whose lobbying becomes instrumental in a re-examination of the murder case that leads to McReele’s exoneration.
Darius’ outspokenness on subjects ranging from prison reform to poverty, crime, job creation and energy consumption make him an instant darling of the lecture and local media circuit, particularly after an appearance on “This Week in Delaware,” a TV news analysis show hosted by Rick’s live-in girlfriend, Katya (Jodi Long). Rick assumes the duties of McReele’s unofficial manager, getting fired up for the first time after years of journalistic numbness by the man’s impassioned convictions.
An articulate, self-educated black man who has risen from adversity, McReele soon attracts the attention of Don Smathers (Henry Strozier), a powerful lawyer who runs the state Democratic org. Hungry for a marketable candidate to oppose the solidly entrenched Republican incumbent, Don convinces McReele to run for state senator, while Rick quits his job to manage the campaign.
With the exception of Long, who has the stiff self-consciousness of an anchorwoman both in her TV scenes and elsewhere, the cast does everything possible to bring the artificial characters to life. But only when Opal, the unmotivated “ghetto girl,” whom upwardly mobile Darius has hung on to from his past, is onstage is there an intriguing character with any discernible edge.
The relationship between Darius and Opal seems no more credibly grounded than that between Rick and Katya. But as the surly homegirl reluctantly caught up in Darius’ bid for elevation, Portia (“Our Lady of 121st Street”) brings a sassy attitude and droll humor to the play that represents the only significant relief from its didactic earnestness. While she’s relatively untroubled about being dumb enough to buy whatever image McReele is selling, Opal’s uneasiness about his act being bought wholesale on a larger scale fuels the play’s best scenes.
Continuing to make poor stage choices after last year’s dismal “Drowning Crow,” Mackie comes across as smart and personable but conveys only a glimmer of the charisma he has in film roles, making him somewhat underwhelming as the erudite demagogue who becomes quite comfortable with his “rehearsed integrity.” O’Keefe’s solid perf is somewhat hampered by the sense that a seasoned journalist might be more savvy to the subtle manipulations of truth in politics; his conflicts too often feel forced.
Strozier creates three distinct characters in Democratic linchpin Don, in the murder victim’s embittered father and, most interestingly, in McReele’s flinty Republican opponent in the Senate race. Belber deserves credit for refusing to caricature this character, instead maintaining a relatively nonpartisan stance and focusing on deeper, more complex issues.
Pity, then, that those issues are so lacking in cogency, making the play seem like a toothless update of the 1957 Elia Kazan film “A Face in the Crowd,” which surely must have been ripe for a more ballsy contemporization.
The play’s shortcomings are given scant camouflage in Hughes’ efficient but disappointingly routine staging and in Neil Patel’s sterile set, made up mostly of modular panels and lent subtle distinctions by Michael Chybowski’s lighting.