Political Sniping

We’ve seen a number of dramas about soldiers having trouble adjusting after coming home from the war—such as Julie Marie Myatt’s Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, which TheatreFIRST did a couple years ago—and still more about the desensitizing effect that war has on the psyche, like Bill Cain’s 9 Circles at Marin Theatre Company a few years back. Now Canadian playwright George F. Walker mines the subject not for pathos—though there’s certainly some of that as well—but for dark comedy in the world premiere of Dead Metaphor at American Conservatory Theater.

George Hampe and Anthony Fusco in Dead Metaphor. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Dean Trusk is a former army sniper returned from Afghanistan—either Canadian or American, something that seems to be left deliberately vague. I’d say he’s probably Canadian, because the government is helping him find a job after his return home, but the satire that follows seems specifically targeted at US politics. Dean’s having trouble finding a job, although the easygoing blitheness with which George Hampe plays him gives the impression that he hasn’t been trying too hard. In any case, it takes him a while to get around to asking for help from a government jobs counselor. “People kept telling me you couldn’t do anything for me,” he tells the counselor, Oliver. “What people?” Oliver asks. “People you didn’t do anything for,” Dean cheerily replies.

Oliver is a mild-mannered, balding, seemingly unflappable bureaucrat with a wry sense of humor—a Bob Newhart type—and ACT core company member Anthony Fusco has marvelously subtle comic delivery with Walker’s snappy dialogue. Oliver’s wife is exactly his opposite, a voracious right-wing politician running for reelection, who spends so much time pandering to her base that she can’t distinguish her own opinions from what’s politically advantageous to say. In private she’s ludicrously forthright about her cynical two-facedness. She doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t give a damn if same-sex couples get married, but she affects pious outrage because that’s what sells. As played by usual ACT leading lady Rene Augesen, Helen Denny is entirely a creature of satire, a cheerful sociopath who cares about nothing in her life or anyone else’s except insofar as it affects the campaign narrative. Helen wears her hair in a Hillary Clinton ‘do, and costumer Lydia Tanjii gives her an array of conservative skirt suits to wear. Although contemptuous of his wife’s politics and cold-blooded hypocrisy, Oliver is accustomed to deferring to her and venting his frustrations only in witty barbs.

Dean is only looking for a job because his ex- and future wife is pregnant, and his mother needs help looking after his father, who’s rapidly losing his memory. Papa Hank is casual to a fault about his deterioration, talking about it so candidly that it upsets the family. Although a likeable curmudgeon, played with proletarian charm by Tom Bloom, Hank gets downright ornery whenever he talks about Helen, “cunt” being the nicest thing he calls her. Wherever it is that they live, it’s a small enough community that the Trusks and the Dennys go to the same church. Hank does keep returning to the well of threatening to rape Helen’s dead body, which is always played for laughs and isn’t exactly endearing.

Tom Bloom and René Augesen in Dead Metaphor. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Despite having no skills other than killing people from a distance, Dean is soon hired as Helen’s aide, happily shrugging his shoulders at all the unethical stuff going on around him until people start wondering if maybe he knows too much. The play gets darker and darker as the one thing Dean’s good at is brought up more and more.

Christopher Barreca’s rotating set places various seating arrangements in concentric black and white rings, like a very large target. There’s a stuffed armchair, office chairs, a diner booth, lawn chairs, a park bench. A backdrop of is hung on a ring above looks as if it might move as well, but doesn’t.

The satire in Dead Metaphor is very broad, particularly as embodied by Helen as a monstrous cartoon of evil with no redeeming features other than her own wicked self-satisfaction. Dean is similarly simple, an absolute innocent who’s both uncurious and amoral. The plot takes a turn that might be film noir in a different piece, and there are sudden shifts in tone from comedy to tragedy and back again. Director Irene Lewis’s staging brings out the humor of the dialogue well, but even so the two-hour production feels meandering at times.

Part of that is the play itself. The female characters aren’t very well fleshed out. Though feelingly portrayed by Sharon Lockwood, Hank’s long-suffering wife Frannie doesn’t do much but fret over her husband and gently correct him when he mistakes her for his first wife or his mother. She’s also Dean’s mother, but that relationship goes unexplored. And there’s not much to Rebekah Brockman’s Jenny, Dean’s wife, beyond her volatility. She divorced him once when he reenlisted, just to make a point, and now that she’s pregnant she rides herd on him to provide for the family.

But the biggest problem with the play is that there’s a lot of buildup to a decision that needs to be made, with some torturous turns of logic used to make it seem like more of a dilemma than it ought to be. After all that, the abrupt and unsatisfying ending feels like a cheat. So many of the comedy’s shots hit home that it’s frustrating to watch the parting one strike so far off the mark.

Dead Metaphor
Through March 24
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #23 of 2013, attended March 6.

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