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Caricature Assassination 

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LIBRA

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

THE MANCHURIAN

CANDIDATE

Shattered Globe Theatre

Happiness is not based on oneself, it does not consist of a small home, of taking and getting. Happiness is taking part in the struggle, where there is no borderline between one's own personal world, and the world in general. --Lee Harvey Oswald, in a letter to his brother

Paranoiacs, says a character in John Lahr's play The Manchurian Candidate, make great leaders; but resenters make the best assassins. In the 1959 novel on which Lahr based his script, author Richard Condon theorized that a man could be turned into a murderer through posthypnotic suggestion. But key to Condon's hypothesis was the personality of the man being brainwashed. Protagonist Raymond Shaw, a Korean war POW programmed by Soviet scientists to kill on command with no memory of the act, is torn between love and hate for his clinging, manipulative mother; her emasculating domination of him (exacerbated, in Condon's variation on Hamlet, by Shaw's father's death and Shaw's contempt for his stepfather) creates the repressed violence and attraction to authority figures that the man's communist captors exploit.

Condon's novel was dismissed as a fun but farfetched thriller; so was the 1962 movie version. But events a year after the film's release made Condon's vision seem prophetic: the shooting of John Kennedy left America shocked by the realization that a public assassination could happen--and wondering why it did.

Writing some 30 years after Condon, Don DeLillo explored the question in his brilliant novel Libra, a study of how a maladjusted nobody like Lee Harvey Oswald could be groomed into one of history's most significant figures. In DeLillo's view, Oswald was a patsy recruited by disgruntled intelligence operatives who wanted to kill Kennedy in revenge for his failure to overthrow Castro. The psychological profile DeLillo gives of Oswald turns out to be very close to Raymond Shaw's: a fatherless boy raised in unhealthily close circumstances by a mother whom he resented. Resenters make the best assassins.

The nearly simultaneous openings of stage versions of Condon's and DeLillo's novels reinforce the connection between the fictional Shaw and his real-life counterpart. John Lahr (best known as Joe Orton's biographer) penned his Manchurian Candidate in 1991 for an English theater company; it's subsequently been seen in the United States in only two or three productions, including Shattered Globe Theatre's, a Chicago premiere. Steppenwolf Theatre's Libra, meanwhile, marks John Malkovich's return to the company that launched him; following in the footsteps of fellow ensemble member Frank Galati, Malkovich is directing his own script.

Of the two shows, Manchurian Candidate is by far the more effective, though neither play is completely satisfactory. The problem in both cases is the playwright's ill-advised attempts to "improve" on his source instead of trusting it.

Malkovich's mishandling of his material is especially irritating because it's so perverse. Despite its nonlinear structure, DeLillo's Libra is a model of psychological clarity, detailing the restless young Oswald's uncomfortable intimacy with his thrice-married mother Marguerite, and Oswald and his wife's fascination with John and Jackie Kennedy as icons of the American dream. The book melds factual observation and fictional speculation, shining with a wealth of keenly observed detail about U.S. life in the late 50s and early 60s. Yet in Malkovich's multimedia production, with its banks of huge and tiny screens playing taped and live video segments to augment the live action on David Gropman's sleek set, almost all such detail seems to have been deliberately stripped away. Except for overly familiar images, such as Marilyn Monroe panting "Happy birthday, Mr. President" and, inevitably, the Zapruder film of Kennedy's death, Libra conveys virtually no sense of time or place.

Staged as a series of presentational vignettes that alternately suggest a congressional inquiry, a military interrogation, and a bad night at a stand-up comedy club, Libra aims for the stark stylization of a Greek tragedy. But Malkovich forgets that the point of ritualistic theater is to bring observers closer to the characters' primal emotions; here, as if resentful of the expectation that tragedy should move an audience, he keeps his actors distant from each other and from the people watching them. Where DeLillo made readers empathize with Oswald's isolation without sympathizing with it, Malkovich (whose adaptation might have benefited from the input of another director) leaves his viewers as confused as the screwed-up protagonist.

Perhaps Malkovich is trying to purge Oswald's story of sentiment in Brechtian style. If so, his effort would be a lot more convincing if he didn't rely so much on crowd-pleasing goofball comedy to give the production what little entertainment value it has. Libra might as well be called The Laurie Metcalf Show: she plays both Oswald's mother (not nearly as substantial a role as preopening puff pieces in Chicago magazine and the Sun-Times implied) and David Ferrie, the flaky anti-Castro activist who is here blamed for organizing the assassination. Compared to Metcalf's over-the-top, undeniably laugh-getting caricature of Ferrie (complete with Elmer Fudd speech impediment, jittery movement, and bizarre red wig), Joe Pesci's portrayal of the same man in Oliver Stone's hysteria-prone JFK seems a model of understatement. It's as if Metcalf, on hiatus from her regular role on Roseanne, were auditioning for her own sitcom.

Metcalf's mugging and an even more grotesque performance by Rick Snyder as Jack Ruby overwhelm more subtle acting by Ned Schmidtke as a conscience-stricken conspirator, K. Todd Freeman as the second gunman on the grassy knoll, Ron Perkins as a renegade FBI agent, and most important Alexis Arquette, who brings a slacker's aw-shucks irony to the enigmatic Oswald. An actor of considerable presence, Arquette holds the stage with easygoing charisma--yet he makes hardly any impact in this woefully underwritten part.

Given the production's jumbled crosscutting and reliance on visual designer John Boesche's projected images--including supertitles explaining the characters' identities and fates, a tacit admission of the script's failure to convey key information--one might ask why Malkovich didn't just make Libra a film. Word has it he wanted to but was preempted by JFK; still, a better script might have gotten financing, at least as a cable TV film. A more salient question for theatergoers is: Why not just read the book? It's a hell of a lot better.

At least one can understand why John Lahr chose to update The Manchurian Candidate, even if his strategy doesn't always work. With a plot that hinges on 50s anti-Red paranoia--and a key character who's a barely disguised caricature of witch-hunting demagogue Joseph McCarthy--Candidate is very much a period piece. Writing for a post-cold-war public, Lahr has moved the action to 1999; instead of the Korean war, Shaw and his fellow marine Ben Marco are veterans of a post-Desert Storm "peacekeeping mission" to bolster democracy in Iraq. When Marco, who might be said to suffer from unusually severe gulf war syndrome, starts having nightmares, he seeks out Shaw--a war hero decorated on Marco's recommendation--to learn their cause. (Ironically, the script's assertion that Shaw is the first Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam war was rendered obsolete the week this production opened, when President Clinton bestowed the first post-Vietnam Medal of Honor on two veterans of Somalia--a Bush-league effort to bolster the president's image that fits perfectly with Candidate's caustic comments about hero worship.)

Replacing Red baiting with Jap bashing, Lahr has Shaw's scheming mother married to a southern senator who spouts isolationist rhetoric in public while privately plotting to nuke the Middle East and make Japan dependent on American oil. The updating doesn't really work: the specter of Japan buying up American companies doesn't carry the same scary weight as international communism did, and Lahr's simplistic switch seems naive in light of the real-life new world disorder--looming crises in Africa, Russia, Eastern Europe, Mexico, and, yes, Korea, as well as the system's breakdown at home. A right-wing demagogue would get much more mileage out of home front hot buttons like abortion and the decline of the family--which, given the underlying theme of dysfunctional mother love, would be more appropriate too.

The Manchurian Candidate works far better in the second act, when director Louis Contey drags the story's incestuous implications out of the closet, generating a chilling tension in the climactic confrontation between Shaw mere et fils. Though Brian Pudil as Shaw is somewhat lacking in arrogant charisma in the play's first half, he's riveting as the automaton assassin fighting for his soul against his power-hungry mother, who's played with gripping intensity by Linda Reiter. They're well matched by Joe Forbrich as the haunted Marco, and for the most part the three are ably supported by the rest of the 11-member ensemble. The only false note is Doug McDade's portrayal of Shaw's senator stepfather as a fanny-pinching, shit-kicking buffoon. The real thing would be far cooler and more eerie. Check out Oliver North.

Reinforcing the theme of imagined purity versus actual corruption, Contey has set the action in a white-tiled room (designed by him, Forbrich, and costumer Nanette M. Acosta for maximum use of Shattered Globe's tiny space) that serves as the observation lab where Shaw is brainwashed, a battlefield, a TV studio, and all the other settings in this generally well-paced narrative. Between scenes stagehands dressed in hospital whites wash down the tables and floors, as compulsively and ineffectually as Lady Macbeth cleansing her bloodied hands. Where Libra uses a nonrealistic set to separate the actors from each other and from the audience, The Manchurian Candidate's single set serves to bring the characters closer together--and to draw us closer to them as we share a journey over the border that separates the personal world of the aberrant yet compelling protagonist from our own.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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