June 9, 2004





A poli-sci thesis that's adapted for the stage


David Edgar's two-play cycle about a fiction California governor's race just may be too smart: It feels more like research than drama.


By Rob Kendt

Special to The Times


Does conscience have any currency in contemporary American politics? The signs may not look encouraging in an election year that will again break fund-raising records.


But a surprisingly affirmative answer comes from an unlikely source: English playwright David Edgar, whose "Continental Divide," a two-play cycle about a fictional California governor's race, had its Southern California premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse last weekend, just as encomiums to that unshakeable West Coast politican Ronald Reagan hit newsstands.


In the first play, "Mothers Against," a Goldwater-y Republican candidate with liberal views on drugs and free speech battles his party's "fright wing" to assert an appealingly Jeffersonian vision of unfettered liberty.


In the second, "Daughters of the Revolution," a former 1960s radical traces his newly recovered FBI file back into his revolutionary past, in the process recovering a vestige of his idealism--even to the point of betraying former activist colleagues, now craven New Democrats willing to sell out any ideal to get elected.


As hopeful as such profiles in courage may be, Edgar flatters us with his vision of Americans taking the nuances of political discourse so deadly seriously. Or perhaps it just seems that way because his two plays, which premiered last year at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and have since played at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and in London, betray their playwright's meticulous research and boundless empathy, even of the strictly hypothetical variety, for all points of view.


The result is more than five hours of nonstop talk--not an automatic liability if the talk is brilliant, the dramatic stakes unbearably high, the modulations of tone dexterous. Edgar has done a series of rewrites since last year's Oregon premiere that have burned off some fat and turned up the dramatic heat a few degrees. But "Continental Divide" still retains the chilly academic air of a political science thesis.


We can't call it a failure of imagination, certainly, that Edgar's ambitious narrative debuted the same year our fair state became a real-life political theater of the absurd. What playwright, after all, could have invented last fall's recall circus, in which a Republican cyborg terminated a Democrat robot over a field crowded with porn stars and assorted others?


Given that freak show, the relatively principled, if cynical, governor's race Edgar conjures, like the fictional Bartlet presidency of "The West Wing," looks more like the politics we wish we had, compromises and all, than an indictment of the dumbed-down fund-raising casino our politics have largely become.


Not that Edgar doesn't score some well-observed points against the corrosive conformity of contemporary campaign gamesmanship.


In "Mothers Against," the stronger of the two plays, the campaign team for Republican candidate Sheldon Vine (Bill Geisslinger) gathers at a family home among old-growth redwoods (in William Bloodgood's dusky, suggestive set) to prepare for a televised debate.


The battle lines are quickly drawn between the candidate's own tolerant laissez-faire conservatism and the nanny-state moralism of the born-again Republican Party, whose views Vine sneeringly dismisses as "bumper-sticker politics, 'values voters,' Mothers Against Everything."


A Latina pollster (Vilma Silva) cites research showing that voters admire Vine's integrity, even say they agree with him--baffling, since they also say they don't know what he stands for.


"How can they not know what I think?" Vine wonders. Without missing a beat, his campaign manager (Michael Elich) deadpans, "Because this has been an exceptionally well run campaign."


There's one issue, though, that Vine's advisers want him on the record endorsing: a dubious ballot measure, Prop. 92, which mandates an anti-terrorist loyalty oath for state employees and registering voters. It's a tough sell to their sharp-witted candidate, not just because it makes his libertarian blood boil but because it would criminalize the eco-activist affiliations of his dreadlocked daughter (Christine Williams), who may know something incriminating about a fatal environmentalist incursion on state property.


Leaving aside that neither this fictional loyalty oath nor the "eco-terrorist" incident prove particularly plausible as a make-or-break electoral controversy, there's a curiously sanitized, house-of-cards quality to all this supposedly Machiavellian plotting. Tempers flare in neat little flickers amid brittle repartee, impromptu stump speeches and mild gallows humor, but consistently stop short of genuine passion or despair.


We soon begin to appreciate the relative economy and focus of "Mothers Against" once we're cast adrift with Michael Bern (Terry Layman), the ex-revolutionary whose journey into his countercultural past drives "Daughters of the Revolution," Edgar's more problematic second play.


A community college dean about to accept a post with a state education commission, Michael panics when his well-meaning partner Abby (Michelle Duffy) gives him his FBI file as a gag gift for his 55th birthday. Aside from whether its revelations might endanger his new job--a concern that fades quickly--Michael's search for the snitch who helped the Feds fatten his file turns into a vision quest of sorts: to find out why the "movement" betrayed itself.


This leads him to a tree-sitting "village" for a ludicrously straight-faced tableau of New Age harmony, and to an ex-Black Panther, Kwesi (Derrick Lee Weeden), now an Oakland community activist, who gets some of the play's more stirring speeches about keeping the faith.


Other ex-radicals on Michael's must-see list prove less inspiring. Both Vine's Democratic opponent, Rebecca McKeene (Lynnda Ferguson), and her campaign advisor (Lorri Holt) are unrepentant about "selling out" their former ideals to get elected.


This is Edgar in his element: a milieu in which every character talks like a policy wonk, a campaign strategist, or an amateur historian of leftist politics. Unfortunately, this is not drama but impressively exhaustive research transposed to the stage, spiced with in-jokes and peppered with snarky asides.


References to recognizable human relationships, meanwhile, are conspicuous by their near total absence. Michael alludes in passing to a family apparently torn apart by his activism, or at least by its aftermath; another character chuckles, not especially ruefully, that she's barely gotten to know her own daughter because she's been "underground." Ah, the things we do for revolution.


Director Tony Taccone gives "Mothers Against" a buzzy Howard Hawks tempo, but no amount of speed can lighten the pedagogical load of "Daughters." Some of the cast have deepened the texture of their characters: As the Vines, Geisslinger and the steely, tightly coiffed Robynn Rodriguez make a particularly convincing power couple. And as twin brothers on opposite sides of the political spectrum, Weeden plays a riveting theme and variation on coolly sublimated rage.


Edgar's would-be epic doesn't have the emotional sweep of "Angels in America" or the narrative confidence of "The Kentucky Cycle," nor either quality of Edgar's own sprawling "Nicholas Nickleby" adaptation. With "Continental Divide," this thoughtful Brit wanted to send a valentine to the better angels of our American nature--to both our frontier individualism and our utopian striving. We would have preferred some ripping good plays.


"Continental Divide," La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of the University of California San Diego (UCSD). In alternating repertory, Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 1. $28-52. (858) 550-1010. Running time: "Mothers Against," 2 hours, 50 minutes. "Daughters of the Revolution," 2 hours, 50 minutes.