Don’t look for the romantic violinist Thomas Jefferson of “1776” in “Sunrise at Monticello,” a goofy new satire offered by Playwrights Theater. Guillermo Reyes has structured what amounts to a one-gag piece, with Jefferson plunked down in the 21st century to become the pivotal focus of opportunistic television moguls.
Salvador (Don Domingues), a restless and rather manic Puerto Rican TV scribe fresh out of grad school, manages to reincarnate the spirit of our third president (Jake Speck) to create a reality series that also employs Puerto Ricans to accent Jefferson’s dubious legacy. The demanding tactics of a bullying, overzealous network veep (Michael David Gordon) fail to discourage the ambitious young writer. Maya (Joy Jones), a young African-American producer of stale minority shows, goes out on a limb for Salvador.
Many laughs emanate from Jefferson’s amazement that the British are now our friends, his curiosity at trains and planes and at the images to be found on a TV set. He views Ralph Lauren models as “poor starving women” and takes pride in the fact that he reduced the penalty for sodomy from execution to castration.
Of course, the big joke is the stain on Sally Hemings’ dress. Jefferson’s 15-year-old, three-quarters-white former slave and mistress is played with foxy allure by Jones. In defense of the accusation that he was a child molester, Jefferson notes that James Madison courted a teenager. The president’s well-documented affair with Hemings is paralleled to that of a recent administration, with a DNA search of Hemings’ descendents producing some startling facts. Once negotiations with Oprah are completed, the shocking discovery will be revealed.
Reyes layers some stinging indictments beneath the glib humor, and the few big laughs are hearty enough. Director James Grossman has paced the show with a rapid-fire delivery that makes it all palatable despite some cumbersome gab.
Gordon as the blowsy, hypocritical producer; Domingues as the ambitious scribe; and Jones’ doubling from past to present is fetching. Speck is a drolly passive president, and the crafty Brendan Patrick Burke swings from playing Moses and waiters to a conservative congresswoman with devilish comic imagination.
The flexible set by Nora Chavooshian is none too attractive but manages the necessary shifting locations. Costumes blandly suffice.