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FROM THIS EPISODE

Politics, politics, politics

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Last week, Theatre Talk discussed the lack of persuasion and optimism in British playwright Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize lecture titled Art, Truth and Politics.

Around the same time that Pinter was giving his speech, three plays were running in Los Angeles that could also be titled &quotArt;, Truth and Politics&quot--and; I was curious to see if the ideas in these works differed from Mr. Pinter's lectures, to say nothing of the many other pessimistic political plays that have been filling theaters for the past few years.

The most promising play was a new piece by Larry Gelbart, a man responsible for some great satiric plays, films, and of course, of one television's finest politically-themed comedies, M.A.S.H..

His new play is titled Floodgate--an obvious reference to this year's Katrina disaster. The play is a mock senate hearing, where statesmen ask inane questions to inept officials who then respond with even more inane answers. In the program notes, Gelbart bluntly says he's ridiculing the corruption of language, not power.

It must be said that during the first part of the play, Gelbart's wordplay takes on a laugh-out loud absurdity that calls to mind Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22. But beyond a few laughs, which would nicely fill out an extended sketch or one-act, Gelbart's full-length play never moves beyond simple mockery.

The staged reading held at the Geffen was certainly entertaining, thanks to the strong cast, including Peter Gallagher, Philip Baker Hall, and Dakin Matthews--once again playing Vice-President Dick Cheney; but never did the play suggest or inspire any notion that America can somehow put a stop to political double-speak. In this way, Floodgate simply is another entry in the growing genre of Bush-bashing plays that preach to the choir.

Next door, at the Geffen's new small theater space, another political satire was running entitled My Buddy Bill. This one-man show is the work of a former West Wing writer--Rick Cleveland--who tells a humorous one-hour story about a friendship will Bill Clinton and his dog Buddy.

How much--and if any--of Cleveland's monologue is true, is irrelevant. My Buddy Bill is such a good yarn, you want it to be true. Cleveland renders the Clintons and other boldface names in vivid, juicy scenes; but while it works as a great dinner party anecdote, it really doesn't work as theater. My Buddy Bill feels like a splashy Vanity Fair expose read aloud--which is fine, but since so much political writing these days is all about personality and celebrity, it would be nice to the legitimate stage used for more challenging artistic work.

A play about the explorers Lewis and Clark which aims to investigate how their charting of the newly expanded United States in 1804 has parallels with 20th century American foreign policy is certainly challenging. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan's Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates, currently running at the Taper, bursts with grand possibilities, and would seem to be a perfect antidote to the type of political plays mentioned previously.

Unfortunately, Schenkkan's depictions of life traveling along the Missouri River, which make up Act I of the play, are one-dimensional and dull. These scenes don't even have the immediacy of a National Park Ranger presentation.

But while Act I merely feels like a bad elementary school field trip, Act II is sophomoric agit-prop of the most uninspired, knee-jerk fashion. Having Lewis and Clark wander into the Philippines and Vietnam could have been amusing; but rather than actually have them explore those foreign lands--Schenkkan shows the explorers interacting with flimsy caricatures of famous leaders, who might as well be costumed, animatronic robots from some sort of historical Disneyland. By the time, Lewis and Clark reach the Euphrates--and have tea with Ahmed Chalabi, no less--the playwright reveals he has no ideas beyond making cheap parallels with history and taking pot shots at figures that other satirists have already dressed down.

Schenkkan's play is a perfect companion piece to Harold Pinter's Nobel lecture. Both are reductive, simplistic, and cut off discussion rather than inspiring debate or thought. As 2005 comes to an end, the state of Political Theater is not strong.

Robert Schenkkan's Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates runs through January 22 at the Mark Taper Forum.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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