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DOCUMENTS


The Tentacle


October 3, 2006

Political Theatre

Roy Meachum

It almost seems too much: the performing arts attempting to capture the real-life theatre of politics. But two examples are here.

Ford Theatre's "State of the Union" and the movies' "All The King's Men" each wish to capture the essence of this democracy: How we go about picking the persons who will wield the awe-inspiring power delivered in the name of "We, the People."

Neither really succeeds. But for entirely different reasons.

Exactly 60 years ago "State of the Union" won the Pulitzer Prize. Writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse were on a roll that started with turning out the final rewrite for Cole Porter's "Anything Goes." In those days musicals were little more than songs and whatever lines took to get them staged.

They did better with "Life with Father" that set all-time box office records. They capped their dual-career with Mary Martin's "Sound of Music." Along the way they managed to pump out "Detective Story."

In their day the pair belonged to the super sophisticates that controlled the arts; while much of the country worried about basic survival, bon vivants like Cole Porter were living la vie en rose, flitting between the Riviera and the Hamptons. Even Messrs. Lindsay and Crouse's best selling play, "Life with Father," dealt with a stockbroker and his brood. It had the secondary effect of rehabilitating a profession, very much reviled in the wake of the market's great crash. Their protagonist did not, in the event, take a dive from his skyscraper in 1929.

In those pre-war years, before the GI Bill raised considerably the nation's education level, few folks had wandered into a live play. To like the arts was to become part of an inner circle - or try.

Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Crouse more than tried, as I said.

>From their worldview, as depicted in "State of the Union," the world was ordered by ambitious and influential human beings; no middle class should apply. Everyone's heard about the infamous smoke-filled rooms; but the play's machinations to foist a candidate on the electorate are more open than that.

Where the production and I first bumped heads was over the presentation of the Republican Party going along with the open selection by a precious few: The nominee, we are told, would be whoever pleased a handful of bosses, drawn from industry's highest ranks. Not even in 1945, when the work first went public on a Broadway stage.

After the revolution wrought by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, either party's nominee could not hope to succeed without the common touch. "State of the Union's" hero demonstrates very little. But it is Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Crouse's game: they obviously mean to bare-all about America's political process, and fall splat on their well-tailored trousers.

Director Kyle Donnelly does the best she can; at several points she illuminates the stage with 27 TV monitors that are used, during the course of the evening, to champion every GOP wannabe since the original, Abraham Lincoln. She presents an exercise in partisanship, which might have been more acceptable when presidential polls stood high; the White House had long lost its curtain of invincibility before Ford's curtain came up last Wednesday.

Preserved in its original three acts, with intermissions in between, "State of the Union" reeks of the artificiality we once thought normal for make-believe theatre. The characters talk AT each other; their reactions come late and contrived, if at all.

The politics of "State of the Union" strike me as quaint and curious, about on the line with opening an old photograph album; the same comparison may be made with its theatrical techniques, which reek of mothballs and camphor.

The latest movie version of "All The King's Men" - and its failure - fall into a completely different category. By coincidence Robert Penn Warren's novel and Ford's current presentation captured Pulitzer Prizes the same year (1946).

But Mr. Warren captured the essence of a real-life politician, Huey P. Long, known variously as the Boss and the Kingfisher; he was both. At one point Mr. Long posed a real threat to capture the White House, riding a tide of avuncular socialism as celebrated in the song, "Every Man a King." There was nothing polite about the novel's anti-hero.

Renamed Willie Stark for fictional purposes, the redneck from Winnsboro, Louisiana, rapes the state made weak by the Great Depression; he was apparently on the way to do the same for the nation when assassin's bullets cut him down. Before that happened, in the new state capital building erected as a monument to himself, Mr. Long managed to squeeze big business and cower the middle class for the sake, he said, of Louisiana's dispossessed, brothers and sisters to the men and women who brought Hitler and Mussolini to power, about the same time.

Coming out in the immediate wake of World War II, Mr. Warren's book naturally appealed to Hollywood. Broderick Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge and John Ireland headed a cast that romped and captured the Oscar that year (1950), for best film, to match its Pulitzer. ("Gone with the Wind" was the only other adaptation to score both top prizes.)

Walking into the Hollywood night that evening Mr. Crawford and Ms. McCambridge also had statues underneath their arms. I can't imagine the same fate falling on Sean Penn and Patricia Clarkson, who play the roles in today's version. Attempting to emulate Robert Rossen's success, writer-director Steve Zaillian chose to take a different approach, and fell flat on his nose, taking with him a cast that gives nothing away to their earlier counterparts.

Mr. Zaillian gutted the plot by choosing to move the story's time out of the Depression; he made Willie Stark all but incomprehensible. Only an absolutely desperate people could have fallen for the real-life Huey Long's "Every man a king..." pitch. Can you imagine the laughter that modern Berlin and Rome would shower on Hitler and his bald buddy?

Cutting down the film's protagonist in 1954 spaced the story through wartime when jobs went begging. Mr. Long would have been forced into the shadows by events in Europe and the Pacific. It destroyed entirely the film's credibility. Moreover, what appears on the screen is dull, dull, dull. The adaptation reeks of boredom. This "All the King's Men" offers a prime example of how too much talk can kill a movie, any movie.

Sean Penn leads his colleagues into soldiering on. The likes of Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law and "The Sopranos'" Anthony Gandolfini are well-respected professionals, after all. But each slides into the depressing depths of a film that only young political groupies could like, those not yet born when the earlier film came out. Blaine Young comes to mind.

For everyone else, get the Broderick Crawford film's DVD or read the book, if you can find it.



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