Political plays have been around since the time of Aristophanes, but you won't find a breezier one than Suzanne Bradbeer's contemporary fairytale The God Game, charming its way into the electorate via Stark Naked Theatre Company. A nicer bunch of politicos would be hard to find.
The execution: When you think of politics, don't you automatically assume a knife in the back, an erupting scandal from decades ago causing present havoc, or at least a dalliance or two outside the home or inside the oval office? We've been conditioned to think the worst of any candidate, because they always do their best to live down to our expectations. So it's a surprise to discover Bradbeer's sweet literate people vying for our vote. What alternate universe have we been sucked into?
Inside their tony Richmond, VA, townhouse, Tom and Lisa (Justin Doran and Kim Tobin-Lehl) celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. Tom is a charismatic Republican U.S. senator with national visibility, a clean heart, and a 68 percent approval rating with his constituency. A real go-getter, he's a progressive who promotes energy independence and sane environmental policies and is touted for his innovative foreign policy initiatives. He also loves his wife with abiding passion, and would eagerly follow through on her provocative mid-day advances if he didn't have a constantly ringing cell phone.
Governor Jenkins, the conservative Republican frontrunner for president, is making a fool of himself on TV, and Tom can't resist giving advice and airing a good dish with his congressional staff. He's the real thing; stalwart, a war hero, smart, and above reproach. Wife Lisa is just as perfect. In charge of a women's shelter in downtown Richmond, she's socially committed, put together in all the right ways, smart, too, and is her husband's sounding board. Their marriage is ideal. Enter Matt (Philip Lehl).
The couple's oldest friend and former lover of Tom's deceased brother, Matt is the political guru for Governor Jenkins. But even his personal compromises in working for the far right governor haven't truly marred his intrinsic goodness. Matt's been estranged from the couple ever since his breakup with Tom's brother and the subsequent traffic accident that killed him, so Lisa is naturally wary to see him again, although she longs for his past friendship. He comes bearing gifts: a floral bouquet for Lisa on her anniversary and to anoint Tom as Jenkins' vice presidential candidate. But Jenkins, and the forces behind him, are deeply faith-based. Tom is too decent to deceive. He doesn't believe in God. Oh, that's not a big issue, Matt assures him with a master politico's snaky charm, you just have to drop a few references to Jesus along the parade route. It's no big deal.
That's when the drama begins. Lisa is a devout Christian, and lying about faith is a very big deal to her. The triangle fractures as the three discuss, ponder, and threaten. Each has cogent arguments to make, laid out with precision and intelligence, and their back-and-forth is liberally sprinkled with personal intimacies which Bradbeer renders in insightful, often comic dialogue that flows with lively debate. Everyone makes sense. Along the way we root for Lisa's intuition, then Tom's skillful balance, then Matt's clever machination. How much is private in a world so public? How far can you bend the truth before it breaks your career and your marriage? Lisa finally delivers an ultimatum that could derail everything Tom and Matt want.
Although the play is padded with circular arguments that rehash the same material - removing the intermission might focus the wandering plot points (and get rid of that redundant dead bird motif) - the exceptional cast weaves a special magic.
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Give these three pros the Congressional Record to read, they'd hold you spellbound. Under Jennifer Dean's sensitive apolitical direction, they infuse Bradbeer's probing wit with utter sincerity. They're people we'd like to have as friends, and the warmth the actors breathe into their characters carries the play a far distance. When Lisa needs assurance from Tom, look how Tobin smooths her hands down Doran's chest. It's just the right gesture, private and personal. In the throes of doubt, Doran runs his hands through his short hair, softening ambitious Tom. As bottled-up Matt, watch Lehl's scene with Lisa as he confesses his feelings about his lost love. Look how his hands reach out to her, withdraw, then reach again. A complete study of character in gesture. The supreme cast, all front-runners, transforms windy politics into the politic.
While these civilized, caring, and rational people sully themselves, a nagging question goes unanswered. Why wasn't the "faith problem" brought up during Tom's previous election campaigns? How did his vile opponents or the snooping press miss this bombshell?
The verdict: The final scene is a press conference where Tom, now caught in the headlights, is confronted with the dreaded "faith" question. The scene is ambiguous, too short, and leaves us unsatisfied. Bradbeer wants us to think about our political process, what toll it takes on those best qualified to serve, on compromise and acquiescence, even on faith vs. rational thought. Leaving us hanging like a Florida chad is unworthy of even PTA governance.
The God Game continues through September 20 with Stark Naked Theatre at Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street. Purchase tickets at starknakedtheatre.com or call 713-866-6514.