Playing Politics

With three major works by playwright Wendy Wasserstein having graced its stage in seasons past, it's not surprising that Wasserstein's An American Daughter gets Main Street Theater's new season off to a comfortable start.

It's not that American Daughter says anything outrageous, illicit or titillating about the human condition; nor is the script in any way experimental in form or content. (No one could ever accuse Wasserstein of, gasp, experimenting.) In fact, most of what Wasserstein does in her latest work is relatively benign, even simple. She dramatizes what it might be like for a woman standing at the bull's-eye center of "unjust" political vitriol. Indeed, much of the play's conflict seems to have slipped right off the pages of recent headline news.

Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes (Erica Garrison) is up for the very political appointment of U.S. surgeon general. And in every way, she seems to be supremely right for the job. She's white, rich, smart and nice. She comes from a prominent family. Even Lyssa's best friend is political gold. Not only is Dr. Judith Kaufman (Rachel Hemphill) African-American, she's Jewish to boot.

Lyssa's the "epitome of good breeding," as her stepmother, Chubby (Sue Mortenson), observes: the perfect American daughter. Right?

Ah me.... As we all know, nobody's perfect. And this bit of sage observation is at the heart of Wasserstein's play, which condemns a political system driven by media sound bites.

It seems all those Corn Belt American women don't take kindly to the fact that Lyssa has been too busy with her amazing career and family life to make it to jury duty.

Lyssa is politically eviscerated for her elitism, for her inability to do the ordinary duties of workaday Americans (this includes paying good-citizen heed to all jury summonses) while she does the "extraordinary" work of public-health administrator/supermother/wife. Of course, lots of women are working like dogs to be as perfect as Lyssa, though their jobs and lives might not be as wondrously glamorous. And when Wasserstein, er, I mean Lyssa, gets on her high horse and starts soap-boxing to American women about what they should and should not concern themselves with, she sounds every bit the elitist that the public accuses her of being.

As with many of Wasserstein's characters, Lyssa is an admirable, uncommon woman with noble and terrific ideas, but her argument and Wasserstein's about the media and women in politics is enfeebled by an inability to understand and give voice to common women and their lives.

And since the media/politics ante has gone sky-high in recent days, Wasserstein's slightly less recent take on the subject already seems a bit dated.

However, Wasserstein's tendency toward sanctimonious elitism does not make her scripts bad or boring; nor do her mule-plodding-traditional narratives put folks to sleep. In fact, she molds some terrific characters and has a way of creating intelligent and almost frightening moments of verbal conflict on stage that are fascinating to watch. And Main Street's fine production, directed by the capable Patti Bean, seizes on some of these moments and characters and runs with them.

Take for instance the Generation-X, media-loving and utterly manipulative Quincy Quince, a new-day sort of Naomi Wolfe-like feminist, who churns out books by the minute with titles such as The Prisoner of Gender and Venus Raging. At one point, she declares to the men around her that "Sex for Lyssa's generation became just something else to be good at. Like weightlifting. We [Gen Xers], on the other hand, want to come home to a warm penis." Quince is played by the lovely, almond-eyed and funny Kim Sevier

One of the most interesting, if baffling, characters is Morrow McCarthy, an ultra-right-wing gay man who starts out as best friend to Walter and Lyssa only to inexplicably undermine all Lyssa's political chances on prime-time national television. Andrew Dawson's McCarthy is intelligent, warm and complex. And it is his acting alone that almost pulls off this strange and somewhat unbelievable turn of events in the play.

Carl Masterson, as Lyssa's wise, warm and politically savvy father, Senator Alan Hughes, is charming, as is Sue Mortenson's Chubby, the senator's seemingly bubble-headed though covertly sagacious fourth wife. (Notice that three generations of women and the way they handle their men are represented in this play.)

Though the newscaster who publicly cuts down all Lyssa's political chances is ironically named Timber, the character's name also fits the rather wooden performance of actor Bill Hargrove. Garrison's Lyssa is also somewhat stiff (lending some credence to all Quince's supposedly silly observations about Lyssa's soullessness).

The missteps should be taken in stride and shouldn't discourage any Wasserstein fan out there from seeing Main Street's energetic production. And after the kinky thrill of the Starr report, Wasserstein's take on politics and the media might be just what any self-respecting surgeon general would order.

An American Daughter runs through October 11 at the Main Street Theater at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose, 524-6706. $13-$18.


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