Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 2004
There was this young man from Yale, son of a wealthy political family. He was a goof-off, really, a party-hardy frat boy. He later moved to Texas and ultimately landed a high-profile job. But long ago, on an Ivy League ski weekend, a social/sexual hookup went awry, with sinister consequences.
This is the incendiary story Mrs. Farnsworth is dying to tell in the new A.R. Gurney play that bears her name. The 90-minute, intermissionless political comedy is set in a New York creative writing class, cleverly populated, in part, by the audience. Mrs. F. arrives late in a breathless, apologetic flurry, her upscale clothes fairly screaming Old Money exurbanite. As she reads the beginnings of her roman à clef, she also reveals a lot about herself, including the incongruous fact that she’s a WASPy Connecticut Democrat. She steadfastly refuses to acknowledge her seditious story’s direct and apparent references to certain current residents of Washington, D.C., or even what percentage of the tale is memoir and what part fiction.
But the potential of this potboiler is not lost on the liberal-leaning professor, who’s itching to get his hands on this highly flammable, election-year exposé. As a fiery discussion ensues, numerous inflammatory issues surface: class in America, political scandal, Democrats vs. Republicans, husbands vs. wives; cover-ups, secrets-and-lies, moral hypocrisy and the use of dusty skeletons — as opposed to substantive critiques of current policy — to topple Presidential administrations. Very juicy stuff indeed.
“When I first read the New York reviews last spring, I thought, ‘Wow!’ this is terrific!,” says poet/writer/actor/academic Fred Moramarco. “I was so thrilled that somebody, Gurney in particular, who’s known for kind of sweet plays — like Love Letters and Sylvia — would write a slightly subversive political comedy about Bush this year.”
After a fortuitous series of calls and requests, Moramarco nabbed the West coast premiere of the play, which he’s producing and directing under the banner of his own Laterthanever Productions. The original, sold-out, Off Broadway production featured Sigourney Weaver, John Lithgow and UCSD alum Danny Burstein. The play subsequently moved uptown to Broadway (to coincide with the Republican Convention), with a different cast; it was still a sellout). In San Diego, the title character will be inhabited by the much-admired and -awarded Rosina Reynolds and her husband will be portrayed by local favorite, Jim Chovick. The teacher is played by the son of the director/producer, L.A. actor Steve Moramarco.
The father-son team performed together in Robert Anderson’s father-son play, I Never Sang for My Father, last year in New York. They also collaborated on a book, “Italian Pride: 101 Reasons to be Proud You’re Italian.” The newlywed, Brooklyn-born Moramarco, Sr., age 65, SDSU professor of American Literature, is the author of several more serious tomes, including “The Poetry of Men’s Lives,” due out in November (University of Georgia Press). He cut his acting teeth at the Old Globe and the San Diego Rep years ago. Now, he freely admits that his intentions with Mrs. Farnsworth are as political as the play’s.
“One of my real motivations was to make my contribution to ending this disastrous Presidency, to create an awareness of the hypocrisy of Bush and his administration. But,” he’s quick to add, “the play is not a Bush-bashing. It’s a very funny comedy. I love the quote from one New York critic: ‘A hilarious play for Democrats — and Republicans with a sense of humor.’
“The piece plays with the distinction between fact and fiction which, as a writer, is of great interest to me. How do you turn life into literature? Art is distilling, condensing, enhancing reality. That’s part of the message of the play. It’s also about class, something we don’t like to talk about in America. That’s Mr. Farnsworth’s role, when he makes his provocative entrance.
“Then there’s Gordon [the teacher], who feels that the revelations of Mrs. Farnsworth’s story could turn the tide of the election and affect the whole future of the country. One of the dangers of political drama is that it becomes too didactic. This is much more nuanced. And there are little suspenses and surprises along the way. These characters are engaging and interesting.”
In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Farnsworth have been called ‘the most magnetic stage couple since George and Martha’ [characters in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?].
As if the challenge of playing Mrs. Farnsworth weren’t enough, at the same time, on weeknights, Reynolds will be reprising another unforgettable role, her tour de force as the lower-class English housewife Shirley Valentine (at North Coast Repertory Theatre, October 19-27).
“In an interesting way,” Reynolds notes, “Shirley and Mrs. Farnsworth are similar. They’re both strong women who don’t realize their full potential. Both are inhibited by the opinion of others. Both emerge from a life that has been comfortable, safe, predictable, and take bold new steps. But they are polar opposites financially, and live literally worlds apart.”
Shirley is an uncontroversial, populist play. And who does Moramarco think will come see Mrs. Farnsworth?
“I’d love to attract a broad audience,” he says. “I don’t want to preach to the choir. The idea is to raise consciousness. But anybody can just come and laugh and have a good time.”
[Mrs. Farnsworth runs October 8-31, for 12 performances only, at the ARK Center for the Performing Arts, 3554 Kettner Blvd; 619-235-9353].
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.