Scorched Earth | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Scorched Earth 


Victory Gardens

Toward the end of John Logan's new one-act drama Scorched Earth, a man named Gerry discusses the military policy that gives the play its title. It's a loser's strategy of burning everything you have, leaving nothing behind for the oncoming victor. Adolf Hitler, Gerry says, dictated such a policy as the Allies approached Berlin in the final days of World War II, but his master architect and trusted aide Albert Speer secretly countermanded those orders so the Third Reich's great architecture--death camps included--wouldn't be destroyed. What was Speer's motivation? Gerry's interpretation is that Speer wanted the truth to be preserved, as a testament to the best and the worst that human beings are capable of.

Very interesting, this historical anecdote. Unfortunately, it is practically irrelevant to the rest of the play--except in the self-righteous presumptuousness with which Gerry presents it. Somewhat like playwright John Logan himself (whose previous plays concern such subjects as the Leopold-Loeb murder trial, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the Russian Revolution), Gerry is a history buff with a penchant for dark and complex topics. In Scorched Earth both Gerry and the writer who invented him reduce these topics to a grab bag of cliches, trivia, and overweening generalities. When Gerry offers the evils of the Third Reich as a parallel for the imperfections of him and his yuppie friends, it's certainly in keeping with his character. Unfortunately, it's also in keeping with the naivete and woolly-headedness that make Scorched Earth such tedious theatergoing, despite the fine work of a very talented and well-directed cast and design team.

Logan's story ostensibly concerns the ins and outs of Chicago politics. But except for a few self-conscious real-life references--one to Jane Byrne, another to the "power" of the Cook County Board president (laughable in light of Richard Phelan's political paralysis, yet presented here without a trace of irony)--the real setting is good ol' Anywhere, USA. A young man named Billy is running for Cook County Board president; he's been groomed for politics by his father, a conservative Democrat with past ties to Senator Joseph McCarthy, and as part of his grooming Billy has dropped the semiradical ideals he once espoused. Handsome, easygoing, likable, and valueless, Billy is a sort of cross between Richie Daley, Richard Phelan, and Joe Kennedy--a hodgepodge of images and allusions rather than a real person.

Contrasted with Billy is his ex-girlfriend Martha, a leftist lawyer disillusioned with the world around her and racked by the internal conflict between her principles and her passions. Assigned to defend a serial killer named Jackson, she seeks Billy's backing in her fight against Jackson's impending execution. After all, Billy shares her conviction that the death penalty's wrong--or at least he did. Billy, predictably, waffles on the matter--his law-and-order Republican opponent is charging him with being soft on crime. Billy's flip-flop further enflames his relationship with Martha, who's already bitter that he dropped her for Becky, a "Hallmark card" blond who also happens to be Martha's best friend.

Becky, meanwhile, is disturbed to find herself turning into a bitch under the pressures of Billy's campaign; she's tired of playing perfect hostess, gripes that she can't smoke a cigarette in public (it's "politically incorrect"--never mind the health hazard), and is bothered by the tension that exists between her and Martha. And sweet, passive Gerry sits around playing best buddy to Billy while secretly mooning after Becky--and spreading nasty little bits of gossip to further divide the two women.

Billy's willingness to compromise, Martha's yearning for a man whose politics she despises, Becky's uncertainty, and Gerry's petty hypocrisies are the dark realities Gerry wants everyone to acknowledge--just as he thinks Speer wanted to acknowledge the realities of the Third Reich. Given the essential silliness and self-absorption of the characters, the outrageous pretentiousness of Gerry's comparison makes a certain dramatic sense. But I don't think it's the dramatic sense Logan wanted to make.

Certainly the play lacks any inkling of the ironic self-awareness that might make Gerry's climactic speech work. It also lacks the basic quality of credibility that its flirtation with reality requires. Why Logan chose Chicago as his play's locale is unclear; even granting him the right to construct a fictitious set of circumstances and characters, one can't ignore how utterly unlike contemporary Chicago the play feels. These characters don't talk like Chicagoans--or Winnetkans, for that matter--and they certainly don't resemble the scrappy street fighters who dominate the city's political scene. Also missing are the dynamics of a campaign. Where, for instance, are Billy's handlers? We hear of two--his slimy manager and his father--but they're unseen figures whose phone calls give Logan an excuse to get Billy offstage so the other characters can talk about him. A full-time candidate--especially one to the manor born, as Billy is--is constantly surrounded by aides, advisers, gofers, and groupies; this guy answers his own phone (and then complains about how many phone calls he gets--get real!).

But far more bothersome is the shallowness with which Logan treats the larger issues his play touches on. Capital punishment, a major element in the conflict, is reduced to a few glib remarks: "Rehabilitation went out with mood rings," and "The point isn't what [Jackson] did, it's what are we going to do." Other pressing matters like abortion, civil rights, and the recession are barely mentioned.

The reason, I suppose, is that Logan isn't really concerned with these issues; he's concerned with the relationships between his characters. Unfortunately, he's as soapy in his drama as he is shallow in his politics. Billy and Becky and Martha and Gerry are friends from college; Billy loved Martha and Becky loved Gerry, but now Billy and Becky love each other and Martha and Gerry are unhappy. Yet they're all still friends--bound, it seems, largely by a shared supply of generational memories. This is a political drama whose most felt and informed dialogue concerns, of all things, the symbolic resonance of Carly Simon's marriage to James Taylor.

It's to the enormous credit of the four-person cast working under director Dennis Zacek that they make these twits tolerable and occasionally even interesting. Martha Lavey as Martha and Rebecca MacLean as Becky (were these roles written for them?) are sympathetic and intelligent even when the script makes them not so; MacLean superbly plays some fairly abrupt emotional shifts, and Lavey's final moral self-confrontation is especially compelling given how contrived it is. Tall, handsome James Krag (Billy) effectively registers the inner strength of a man whose privileged position has paradoxically caused him to grow up an outsider, and John Cardone (Gerry) has mastered the deferential body language of a shy, studious man constantly wrestling with insecurity and feelings of superiority.

Set designer Chuck Drury lives up to his clever program biography's claim of having a "painterly eye" with an all-purpose black-and-chrome set backed by a colorful abstract painting; Robert Shook's lighting is almost cinematic as it shifts the action from one location to the next; and the character insights of Marsha Kowal's costumes nicely complement the actors' creation of three-dimensional characters from a two-dimensional script.

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