KPBS AIRDATE: October 7, 1992
Can a politician ever enter the Pearly Gates? Sure: Watergate , Iran -Contragate, and now, “Mastergate.” The political satire has just parked its sardonic and corrupt little butt into the North Coast Repertory Theatre. Penned by Larry Gelbart — the M*A*S*H-man — it’s a silly symphony in doublespeak.
The setting and cast names set the stage. We’re in the Sherman Adams Room in the John Mitchell Building in Washington , D.C. The entire two-hour piece is a Congressional hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate Alleged Covert Arms Assistance to Alleged Other Americas. The presiding senators are Oral Proctor and Shepherd Hunter, among others. The witnesses are Steward Butler, Major Manley Battle and Vice President Burden. The scandal is the secret purchase of a Hollywood studio by the CIA. Filming in San Elvador was a cover for diverting arms to the neighboring country of Ambigua, where a U.S.-backed war is raging.
Does it all sound too familiar? It is. Gelbart has snapped a composite portrait of the ugliest Washington profiles. The drinking, bribe-taking, check-bouncing congressmen. The coke-snorting corporate connections. The ruthless, Germanic Secretary of State. The crisply jingoistic, Northerly military man. The dozing president. The dying CIA director. The goofball V.P. The problem is, it’s SO familiar, and so close to reality, it’s hardly funny.
Lest we forget the antecedents or think the piece is dated, director Tim Irving beats us over the head multiple times. We get a newsreel flashback of the last 40 years in America . From the Rosenbergs to Reagan, Khrushchev to Clarence Thomas. “Those who forget the past,” Gelbart tells us, “are certain to be subpoenaed.” In the Update department, there are mock-sales of Ross Perot buttons (“You may need ’em after all”). The paintings on the wall are George Washington and George Bush. But the Vice President, who reads Mad magazine and has to be questioned through a bunny puppet, is very Quayle. And for some unknown reason, the Chief Counsel to the Committee is a mustachioed male played by a female. If there is a reason, it’s a subtlety dying of loneliness in this production.
The cast is at its best in the realm of mimicry: Eric Medlin’s dead-on Kissinger and patch-eyed North, Robert Hagearty’s mop-topped Ted Kennedy, and young Forrest Blackburn’s grinning, goofy Quayle.
The set and costumes are great, the lines are laughable at times. But what does it all add up to? Nothing that we didn’t see day after appalling day at the Thomas-Hill hearings. Or the weekly news updates on the Iran Contra affair, which everyone seems to find less interesting than the Clinton-Flowers affair. Our everyday reality is far more absurd than this play. But hats off to North Coast Rep for jumping into yet another risky arena.
Their valiant efforts aside, this could be the only time in my professional critical career that I can honestly say a stage play is less unnerving and entertaining than the TV version. C-SPAN film at eleven.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.