Strawdog Theatre Company
This is not to be a political revolution. Its object will be the overthrow not of governments, but the economic and technological basis of the present society. --the Unabomber Manifesto
The earth is dying....It is time for wrath. It is time for bombs. --Victor in Cat's-Paw
I may be in the minority here, but I wanted the Unabomber to make sense, to be an eloquent spokesperson against a society that has become progressively more polluted, inhumane, and mechanical. Though his actions are barbaric and indefensible, if he'd been able to write he might at least have ignited some intelligent debate. But the rambling, 35,000-word screed that found its way into the Washington Post was little more than familiar antitechnological rant laced with dull, bizarre, and bigoted blather about his problems with feminism and the African-American family. The bomb he'd hoped to drop on the American public was little more than a fizzling dud that could only have come from the pen of a paranoid madman and C student.
William Mastrosimone's newly updated 1985 Cat's-Paw, concerning a small environmental terrorist group that holds a nation hostage to its plea for ecological purity, represents a golden opportunity to make the radical progreen statement that no genuine human being seems able to make. Instead of sparking a discussion of issues, though, Mastrosimone just gives us another murderous nut whose actions are all too easy to dismiss. Mastrosimone may be sitting on dynamite, but he can't strike the match that will ignite it.
For one thing, he's not the world's subtlest playwright. A devotee of the James Bond school of writing, Mastrosimone believes that dialogue is a lot more interesting when someone's tied up or has a bomb strapped to him. If not much is going on, put a gun to someone's head. It's an exploitive but occasionally effective approach that's served him well over the years: witness the success of such earlier works as Extremities, in which a woman turns the tables on her would-be rapist, and The Woolgatherer, which exploits the vaguely sadomasochistic relationship between a shy, sickly girl and a brutish man for all it's worth. I missed Mastrosimone's Golden Globe-winning miniseries Sinatra, but I bet he had a good time with the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr.
In Cat's-Paw every character has a gun pointed at him or her before the play's over. But Mastrosimone never bothers to fill in the vague outlines of character he's substituted for full portraits. Instead of a political organization with a radical but understandable agenda, he gives us the tiny cult Earth Now! led by a cold and calculating maniac. After 12 major U.S. newspapers refuse to publish Victor's manifesto about water pollution, he kidnaps an EPA functionary and detonates one of his own most ardent followers in a remote-control car-bomb attack outside the Senate, where 11 senators are killed and numerous others maimed.
Enter Jessica Lyons, the award-winning investigative TV news reporter. Victor abducts her so he can tell the public his side of the story. The hard-nosed Lyons is a carbon copy of Victor: she'd do anything for a story, just as he'd do anything to stop water pollution, and his desperate, naive underling Cathey would do anything for him. The cat-and-mouse game between Victor and Lyons, as they bargain over what questions can and can't be asked and whether she'll be allowed to interview Cathey or the EPA official Darling, is a lot duller than it should be because neither is a credible character.
Though Mastrosimone gives us dribs and drabs about Victor's past as a philosophy professor and a deluded, guilt-ridden environmental activist, the character remains a cipher, offering little more than canned enviro rant and stock menace. "I am the rage you feel but do not have the guts to act on," Victor asserts. Would that he were. One feels absolutely no empathy with this emotionless murderer and blowhard. Ditto for Lyons, who could just as well be called Tough Reporter #1, readily packaged for Jane Fonda or Sigourney Weaver. Imagine Fonda in The China Syndrome interviewing the nuclear reactor instead of Jack Lemmon, and you have an idea of the main characters' interactions. Directing for Strawdog Theatre Company, Richard Shavzin gets about as much as can be expected out of Gordon Reinhart and Adrianne Cury in the lead roles. The tension of their situation makes the play watchable, but Shavzin is unable to make them human beings.
Mastrosimone and Shavzin both fare better with the supporting characters. The electric, uncompromisingly human Lisa Rothschiller as Cathey, Mastrosimone's ersatz Patty Hearst, suggests what could have been a far more interesting play had the author made a sympathetic figure its center. And David Pease as the hapless bureaucrat at the mercy of Victor's whims is a splendid corporate neurotic, suggesting a young and pathetic Karl Malden.
Efficient direction and solid performances can go only so far, however, when a script hasn't been brought up to snuff. Though Mastrosimone has changed Cat's-Paw, making veiled references to the Persian Gulf war, the Unabomber, and the Oklahoma City bombing, in the ten years since he's written it he's never filled in the gaps in his characters and plot. Why does Victor give Darling a placebo truth drug before he's to meet with TV reporter Lyons when he clearly wants Darling to lie for him? And why does Darling lie in the interview despite the placebo?
Such mysteries could be overlooked if Mastrosimone had done more to make his drama realistic instead of contemporary. In his director's notes, Shavzin tries to present Mastrosimone's play as a profound progreen statement, an attack on those who seek to cripple "the environment that has graciously supported us for the last couple of million years." The play doesn't make that statement, though. If anything, it speaks out against leftist zeal. Mostly, though, it's just another nut-with-a-gun-and-a-manuscript play. It will keep audiences alert, but it won't inspire anyone to take the issues seriously or take any kind of political action. That may be the safe approach, but it doesn't make for great theater. Who knows, though. Given our political powder keg of a society, maybe that's just as well.