A genuine satirist kicks against all the pricks, relishing that he or she might challenge rather than placate audiences.
Exposed by Robert Brustein. Directed by Steven Bogart. Staged by the Boston Center for American Performance and the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, Wemberly Theatre, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through December 18.
By Bill Marx
While sitting through Robert Brustein’s Exposed, Samuel Johnson’s line about the satisfactions of the unlikely came to mind: “A woman preaching is like a dog’s walking on hind legs. It is not done well: but you are surprised to find it done at all.” At the age of 88, the former artistic director of the American Repertory Theater is writing for the stage. Yes, the result, at least this time around, is somewhat feeble, but you can’t help but admire his gumption. The record of substantial drama coming from playwrights in their late 80s is not very encouraging. There are exceptions. The amazing Greeks churned out brilliance well into superannuation, and George Bernard Shaw wrote a nimble historical comedy (In Good King Charles’s Golden Days) well into his 80s and came up with the charming puppet show Shakes versus Shav when he was over 90. Of course, even when Brustein was in his salad days he was light years away from this august theatrical league.
I haven’t kept up with Brustein’s playwriting over the past couple of decades. I partly stayed away because the scripts of his I saw produced at the A.R.T. were mediocre. A champion of high modernism in drama was content to churn out safe, middlebrow material. Meanwhile, I went through enough of a rough patch with Brustein to make me question whether I could be fair critiquing his work for the stage. In a contentious commentary, I pointed out that he was knee-deep in conflict of interest: the head of a major regional theater was also writing stage reviews for a major publication (The New Republic). I believed then and now this two-faced power-mongering was bad for the credibility of theater criticism.
Then, also back in the ‘90s, I was briefly blackballed by the A.R.T. because I reviewed the premiere production of Hot ‘N’ Throbbing, a minor effort from Paula Vogel, after I had been warned not to. Once a Boston Globe story pointed out the contradiction — a major theater critic banning a reviewer — I received a wonderfully Nixonian phone call from the man himself, in which Brustein assured me that the veto on my covering the A.R.T. had not been his idea, and that it was no longer in effect. I decided to stay away from his playwriting efforts: I did not see any of the entires in his trilogy chronicling the life of Shakespeare and skipped The King of Second Avenue at the New Rep.
But now not only have tons of water gone under the bridge, the structure has been washed away. Brustein is no longer the theater critic for The New Republic, whose once first-rate cultural coverage has been dumbed down under new management. I am a senior citizen, and Diane Paulus, the current artistic honcho of the American Repertory Theater, is not about making serious theater: she produces corporate compliant entertainment for Broadway or invents immersive, party-hearty circuses. On the latter front, an interesting factoid. The A.R.T. just hired a new Executive Director, Diane Quinn: “Most recently she served as Senior VP of Creative and Artistic Operations at Cirque du Soleil and was responsible for managing the artistic quality of all shows globally. Quinn joined Cirque in 2004 where she held a series of positions including Public Services Director, Director of Artist Management, and Company Manager in Las Vegas.” Paulus, an entrepreneur extraordinaire, knows where the big money is. Don’t be surprised if in the future Harvard University’s A.R.T. takes a gamble and brings one of its three-ringed dance extravaganzas to Las Vegas.
And that brings me to Exposed, because at least one inspiration for this satire of American corruption is gambling giant Sheldon Adelson, the CEO of Las Vegas Sands, a man who uses wads of his monumental net worth of $27.40 billion USD (as of this year) to buy and sell politicians who will push for his reactionary agenda, joyfully paralyzing Congress in the process. Brustein piggybacks on the structure of Molière’s Tartuffe and introduces the televangelist huckster Dick Cockburn (Michael Hammond) into the family of the superrich Seymour Sackeroff (Jeremiah Kissel), who adores Dick. After he vets the preacher in his Texas home (to make sure profits from his gambling and prostitution businesses will be protected), Sackeroff plans to bankroll the scallywag’s campaign for Congress and then a run for the White House. Seymour’s mother (Annette Miller), who had a fling with Dick decades before, is all for the scheme. But Seymour’s gay son Ronald (Scott Barrow), daughter Caroline (Annabelle Cousins), and wife Candy (Abby Goldfarb) are dead set against the born-again phony. Seymour tries to hook up Dick with Caroline, which kicks off a chain of embarrassing exposures, many of them triggered by Dick’s proclivity for dropping trow in front of women.
The result is a geriatric sit-com that, at its best, comes off as mildly amusing entertainment. For some reason (parody?) at the sound of bell (a Pavlovian tinkle?) the characters break into rhymed doggerel. A little of this silly singsong goes a long way. Could it be that Brustein is sending up Richard Wilbur’s marvelous translations of Molière? The June/moon/spoon prattle outstays its welcome. And I demand that a moratorium be declared on deafness being used as a comic device for assembly-line malapropisms.
More damaging is that the play attacks very, very easy targets for Boston’s left-leaning theater audiences. It’s the Fox News laundry list of right-wing rants: climate change denial, anti-gun control, anti-big government, anti-taxes, anti-gay marriage, etc. As Brustein writes in the introduction to his latest collection of prose, Winter Passages, “we no longer have a strong social-economic system, such as Marxism or socialism, to modify human selfishness or curtail human greed, and organized religion doesn’t seem to be doing much to improve human character either …” Amen to that. But the long line of pigs feasting at the campaign money trough come from up and down the ideological spectrum — you don’t have to be a Bernie Sanders supporter to cast a skeptical eye on Hillary Clinton’s super PAC and wonder just how much Wall Street needs to fear her. A genuine satirist kicks against all the pricks, relishing that he or she might challenge rather than placate audiences.
Director Steven Bogart pushes the proceedings along, an air of quiet desperation clinging to his by-the-numbers dispatch. The cast members give broad performances that aren’t idiosyncratic enough to rise above the routinely cartoonish. There is nothing very dark in Kissel’s gruff huffing and puffing as Seymour, while Hammond is miscast as the monstrous Dick — he is too old for the role and doesn’t supply the holy-roller charisma necessary to convince us that this smooth talker could captivate millions who are longing for salvation on YouTube. Performing cats would leave him in the dust of ages.
There are some funny moments amid the predictable punch lines, politically correct caricatures, and blue humor antics. Blaming the dinosaurs on a liberal conspiracy spearheaded by director Steven Spielberg is droll, and when Brustein brings in G-d Himself as the Deus ex machina we have the makings of something really promising — jolts of divine bile. G-g knows, Exposed could use some thunderbolts of Old Testament indignation. But Remo Airaldi’s Mighty One comes off as a softie — He is handed a chance to deny the paternity of Jesus Christ but Brustein is too scared to raise theological hackles (in contrast to Molière). The play soon turns into an overly coy homage to Borscht Belt/Mel Brooks humor. That kind of anarchistic and naughty comedy has its place, but it inevitably collapses into sentimentality — which puts the kibosh on satire. When it comes to savaging the hypocrisy of dangerous, world-destroying fools the great Ben Jonson knew that cold, pitiless anger was indispensable. Exposed‘s wrap-up is disappointingly cuddly, nostalgic to a point that approaches second childhood, and more than a little smug.
But enough … Brustein has “gifted” Boston University his papers. No doubt they will testify to the variety of ways he has enriched American theater. This production from the Boston Center for American Performance and the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre feels like a dutiful thank you, a gesture of gratitude for services rendered.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.