David Wiltse’s “Sedition” examines free speech in America during times of war — a subject especially relevant and worthy now. But speeches are what the play is filled with in this heavy-handed, overacted and talky history lesson of a drama that’s world preeming at Westport Country Playhouse, the Connecticut theater where Wiltse is playwright-in-residence. Production gets little help from helmer and a.d. Tazewell Thompson and cast, who only accentuate the stilted dialogue, arch characters and lecturing tone.
Even the between-scenes musical underscoring by Fabian Obispo signals the melodrama like a soundtrack to a B movie involving government conspiracies. Donald Eastman’s evocative shadow box of a set is the production’s only subtle note.
There’s potential in the subject of the Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918, laws Congress passed prohibiting speech against WWI and the government. Voicing dissent was seen as disloyal and was punishable by fines or jail time, with lives and careers destroyed in the name of patriotism. But in “Sedition,” story and characters are as broadly drawn and predictable as a piece of agitprop.
Plot, based on a true story of the playwright’s grandfather, centers on Andrew Schrag (Chris Sarandon), the esteemed head of the German department at a Midwestern university, who tries to dissuade a simple-minded, gung-ho student (Bryant Martin) from enlisting to fight in the war.
A cautious man, Schrag avoids becoming publicly political, declining to sign antiwar petitions or speak at rallies. But when a faculty colleague (Mark Shanahan) reveals the incident with the student to save his own activist skin, Schrag comes under the grand inquisitor spotlight of government watchdog Megrim (Jeffrey DeMunn).
The premise of the play is promising, but as depicted (and leadenly played by Sarandon), Schrag is pompous and self-righteous, prone to declarations and cliches (“Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels,” he quotes. Or, as he tells his wife, “I’m a lover, not a fighter.”)
Attempts to personalize him and make the character more than a mouthpiece come up short. He even speechifies to his equally humorless wife (Hannah Cabell), who chiefly frets or nags as Schrag responds with outbursts such as “Dammit woman, must you make it harder?”
Play perks up during Schrag’s public hearing, in which there is an inherent structure for a lively debate featuring the accused and his anti-intellectual adversary Megrim. However, the cards are stacked heavily, and who has the moral high ground is never in doubt. But by this point, Schrag is too unappealing a character to make his climactic speech a triumph.
Colin McPhillamy has some decent comic moments as the in-a-pickle chancellor (“You people in the humanities,” he sighs), trying to protect the college — and its government grants. But his characterization, too, goes over the top.