The True-Hearted Traitor

According to high school history books, the American Revolution was all about heroic brilliance. The founding fathers forged a nation out of wilderness and wisdom, and Americans everywhere knew the true value of freedom. Or so the story goes.

But Richard Nelson tells a darker tale of the birth of the nation in his quiet and powerful The General from America. He pulls the hush-up tyranny and monolithic cruelty that infect any political revolution out from the tall shadows cast by righteousness and romanticized history. And his story is made devastatingly real at the Alley Theatre, where gorgeous pools of designer James F. Ingalls's 18th-century light dapple the brown brick walls of Douglas Stein's stern colonial set with ominous puritanical grace. Here, the political intrigue that could turn a man against his country comes alive.

At the story's open, the British occupy New York, bringing with them all their love for wine, women and bacchanalian bawdiness. Young, blond and boozy, Major John Andre (Paul Anthony McGrane) is busy serving the crown by performing his own poetry on a tiny stage in an alehouse. His English comrades like the ponytailed fop most for his entertaining way with words (which is made all the better by a masked serving maid, who finds herself stripped naked by the poem's end). Little does anyone know that pretty boy Andre will one day martyr himself to the war and become a hero that both sides admire.

In Philadelphia the prudish Americans rule. They are deep in the horrors of war, with women and children starving in the streets, newspapers being censored and everyone suspected of some corruption. Even the most revered soldiers such as General Benedict Arnold (Corin Redgrave) are being charged with war crimes -- all in the name of freedom.

It's in the middle of this mayhem that Arnold starts to question the good fight. Watching Americans hang their own for the smallest infractions and listening to "the politicians," who have nothing good to say about the soldiers on the front line, the old warrior begins to wonder if he has been fighting for the right side.

Of course, Arnold has been profiting from the war even as he's battled through the infamously dreadful winters of the revolution. But war profiteering is small potatoes compared with the sort of treachery Arnold's name now invokes. In fact, it is not until the old general is publicly humiliated that he begins to contemplate the actions that would link his name to the worst sort of betrayal.

What is perhaps most fascinating in Nelson's script is his ability to shape the flattened-out bastards and heroes of American history into fully rounded characters. Everyone from Alexander Hamilton (Jesse Pennington) to George Washington (Jon DeVries) is humanized here, and no one is all good or all bad. Hamilton is a flirt. Washington is a politician, willing to compromise his values and his friends. And all the Americans are cultural toads when compared to the refined Brits.

The Alley cast, headed up by Redgrave with his deliciously warm speaking voice, is strong. Especially charming is McGrane as the foolishly nervy and well-coiffed Andre. Nelson, who also directs this production, is sometimes a bit too reverent of his own writing, allowing some speeches to linger too long. And the emotional potential of the story is undermined by two tearful episodes in which characters run crying off stage, where they remain, wailing in the wings. These are surprising weak points in an otherwise fascinating night of theater.

A popular bumper sticker goes something like "Freedom isn't free," which sounds fine in the abstract. Nelson's smart script shows the terrible truth of such rhetoric, especially when the price is paid at home.

Theatre Under the Stars' world premiere musical version of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is "NOT a camp show," according to its press release. It's true: Camp is exactly what this all-too-earnest production is missing.

It's not hard to understand why someone would want to turn the over-the-top story made famous in the '60s film with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford into the stuff of musical theater. After all, where else can you watch a grown-up bad-seed ex-child star torture her beautiful invalid sister with dinners of dead rats? The story is a classic, or at least it should be. Who could forget the blazing power of the wild-eyed Davis as she climbs the long stairs toward her sad sister's room, silver dinner tray in devilish hand?

Unfortunately, in this musical by Lee Pockriss, Henry Farrell and Hal Hackady, we are asked to take all this bad behavior seriously. Much of it comes off as unbelievable, especially the part where Blanche, who has been strung up, gagged and starved by Jane, turns all mushy inside and tearfully forgives her nutcase of a sibling.

Flashbacks run throughout the play; apparently both Blanche and Jane live in the memory of their glory days. Jane's childhood stardom comes back with the help of young Brooke Singer, who is charmingly spoiled as the bratty vaudeville headliner. Less effective are Blanche's long memories full of choreographer Dan Siretta's tedious Lawrence Welk-style dance numbers. These glossy twirls about the stage, meant to evoke the glory days of MGM musicals, never catch fire.

And even the formidable talents of Millicent Martin as Jane and Leslie Denniston as Blanche can't make Pockriss's music and Hackady's lyrics memorable. Both women are gorgeous performers, but the material doesn't do them justice. The only exciting moments come from Joanne Bonasso, who plays Jane as a young woman -- surly, but still not off the deep end. Bonasso curls up her lips and spits hate-filled invectives at the lovely Blanche like she really means it.

Otherwise, the musical version does little to make Baby Jane's creepy story worth singing about.

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Lee Williams