Those of us old enough to remember the ’60s know Donald Rumsfeld brings to mind another hard-charging and dangerously self-confident secretary of defense: Robert Strange McNamara. During the Vietnam War, his optimistic pronouncements and world-changing plans personified America’s profound disconnect with geopolitical realities.
Katy Hickman’s new play, “Bright Boy: The Passion of Robert McNamara,” tries to capture the man in all his complexities and contradictions. A world premiere production by Ensemble Studio Theater-L.A. works on the level of agitprop polemic; in its manic energy and declamatory Brechtian style, it’s reminiscent of an Actors’ Gang “whack ’em over the head” staging.
While it’s rough-edged and riddled with odd moments, strange directorial choices and dead spots, “Bright Boy” succeeds in conveying McNamara’s technocratic zeal and grandly misconceived ideologies. In Hickman’s hands, he personifies the whole schizophrenic decade.
“Bright Boy” begins with a memorial service for former Secretary of State Dean Rusk at Mills College in Oakland. It’s the mid-’90s, and the 78-year-old McNamara has lost none of his zeal — nor his attractiveness as a convenient target for social liberals. “Sir, it appears they blame you for AIDS,” says Ben, McNamara’s Poindexter-ish assistant. McNamara is unruffled. “Well, if I did start AIDS I sure as hell didn’t do it on purpose!”
During his eulogy, McNamara faints and falls onto the college president, breaking her ankle. This event launches a stream-of-consciousness journey through McNamara’s life (part of his delirium, perhaps?), during which his demons pursue him and pepper him with questions about his controversial tenure in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
There are intertwined subplots. A trio of college radicals digs a hole on campus as a form of vague protest; it leads to an abandoned gold mine and, possibly, an underground weapons facility. The hatred of the college president’s brother, an unhinged Vietnam War vet, for McNamara leads to a confrontation atop Mount Whitney.
Hickman’s script also contains some ’60s political icons. Hugo Armstrong’s LBJ is particularly memorable. “I can’t be some yellow-ass female when it comes to the communists,” the cowboy-hatted Texan fumes.
“Bright Boy” is a deliberately scattershot effort. Its references range far and wide, from “Waiting for Godot” and T.S. Eliot to ’60s pop hits and cultural touchstones of the era such as the homely little Ford Falcon (which McNamara proudly lists as one of his achievements when he served as a Ford exec).
Sometimes the results veer into metaphysical bedlam. Director James Eckhouse pushes situations beyond the absurd into the ridiculous; McNamara’s mountaintop showdown with the Vietnam vet is one such instance.
Laura Fine’s set, a jumbled mess of file drawers and desks, is forced to play too many roles.
But Hickman’s message about hubris trumping reality is a timely one, which brings urgency to the performances.
Garrett M. Brown’s McNamara is a galvanizing presence. Brown captures his underlying idealism and persuades us that McNamara’s secretly held belief — that he was actually a do-gooder rebel — may just be true. Clearly, Hickman is inviting a comparison to another secretary of defense who shares McNamara’s distorted self-regard — one who’s shaping our present century.