Presidential Affairs

If you feel the earth has tilted off its axis in recent months, rest assured, it's not Mother Nature. It's the weight of the gargantuan amount of material -- written, filmed, sung, painted and broadcast -- bashing our president. The colossal weight of it all should spin our globe right into the sun.

The latest example comes from the stage, which as a whole has seen its share of anti-Bush works. (The Great White Way has produced only one anti-Kerry play: John F. Kerry: He's No JFK.) In a scheduling coup, Theater LaB presents A.R. Gurney's Mrs. Farnsworth, still playing to sold-out houses off-Broadway. With its sly title evocative of the English Restoration, Gurney's comedy takes down George W., but with a velvet touch.

Gurney, whose celebrated works include Love Letters and The Dining Room, made his name exploring those strange creatures known as WASPs, gently dissecting their white-bread class-conscious snobbery and aloof genteel ways. Lately, though, the playwright has turned his sharp social observation toward politics, as in his Fourth Wall and O Jerusalem.

Gurney's newest play makes clear that nothing would please him more than Bush's downfall this November. But what sets this work above others in the "shrub whacking" genre is that Gurney knows how to write a well-made play, loaded with characters who grab us from their first entrance and make us care what happens to them.

Gurney gives us sweet agitprop theater, not wild-eyed burlesque (Tim Robbins's Embedded), paranoid raving (Karen Finley's George & Martha) or guerrilla theater of the absurd (Vital Theatre Company's I'm Gonna Kill the President: A Federal Offense). He's much too tasteful a playwright to go over the top. Granted, he loads the deck with the usual, weary arguments -- Bush is a clod; a coke-snorting, drunken party boy; a gun-wielding pseudo-cowboy who craves to be master of the universe -- but he dilutes his vitriol by turning our gaze to Mrs. Farnsworth and the story of her life. And then he turns the plot upside down by making us doubt her veracity, if not her sanity.

Marjorie Farnsworth (Carolyn Johnson), a "rich Democrat" from New Canaan, Connecticut, has enrolled in a night-school writing class. Please do not call her Marjorie, she haughtily pronounces, because, in the words of her beloved grandmother, "first names destroy personal distances." Mrs. Farnsworth has written a book ostensibly about a young woman's salad days at Vassar; in the telling of that tale, she delves into Bush's early dissolute Yale years.

An incendiary, libelous page-turner, her book-in-progress galvanizes liberal firebrand teaching assistant Gordon Bell (Travis Ammons). "You've got a tiger by the tail," he says with glee. The book will mean utter defeat for Bush. But complications ensue: Mr. Farnsworth (Terry Jones) arrives and, with pompous righteousness and delicious hypocrisy, states that his wife is delusional and has made up stories about W. for years.

Gurney's exploration of the "fact vs. fiction" theme evolves throughout the 90-minute discourse (the exact duration of the class, in which we, the audience, are the students); he ends up focusing more on its social than its political aspects. Mr. Farnsworth informs his wife that if she writes this scandalous book, she will betray her class, cheapen herself and embarrass her family and friends. Mrs. Farnsworth is momentarily blocked and defeated, but she's been emboldened by the freedom of the classroom (she finally demands to be addressed as "Marge, like I'm working in a diner"). She puts aside the Bush book and turns to write her memoirs about…John F. Kerry. "He called me sweetheart," she twinkles in remembrance.

In pink cashmere sweater ensemble and single strand of pearls, with hair swept back and held in place by tasteful clips, Johnson is the picture-perfect matron from Connecticut. "I'm utterly retro," her character says about her writing longhand, and she is -- like a dinosaur. With her upper-crust accent and manicured perfection, Mrs. Farnsworth is blithely unaware, yet yearning to learn. She has taste and civility, but she's also misguided and elitist, and those are the very qualities that bring this Connecticut crazy to glorious, lovable life.

Although Forrest Farnsworth wouldn't be caught dead wearing the ill-fitting suit in which he's costumed, Terry Jones brings a world-weary patrician smirk to this authoritarian blueblood, who startlingly reveals his true colors in a nifty 11th-hour reversal supplied by Gurney. Jones gives a convincing portrait of the effete snob who "adores" his wife and expertly furnishes the cold-fish veneer that so chafes Gordon Bell. To Jones's credit (under the smooth direction by Ed Muth), despite his character's authoritative opinions, his motives remain tantalizingly vague.

Travis Ammons excels as ponytailed, leftist Bell. His eyes catch fire when Mrs. Farnsworth's immoral protagonist turns out to be the POTUS. His rants against the Man take a hasty backseat when bags of cash start dancing in his head.

Ultra-radical Bell, though, overlooks one surefire outlet. Instead of wasting time writing a book, Mrs. Farnsworth would be better served by an interview with Dan Rather on 60 Minutes. The worst will be believed, and no one will check the facts.