Supple in Combat
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
By Adam Langer
Lying is one of the best forms of entertainment. Some of the best moments of drama over the past 15 years have come from liars testifying before Congress or juries. Half the appeal of watching Ronald Reagan or George Bush or Oliver North or O.J. or Bill Clinton on television is to observe someone you're pretty sure is lying use linguistic gamesmanship to BS his way out of whatever mess he's in.
Drama, though of course it may have its elements of exaggeration, absurdity, or downright ridiculousness, is not a game for the dishonest. The playwright can lie his fool head off, but the play has to ring true. Even if you're writing about a liar and the heartache he causes.
Creating a Washington-based drama about private lives undone by public declarations, juxtaposing the doublespeak of the nation's capital with that of a married couple who can no longer communicate honestly, is an intriguing if somewhat obvious idea. But in Supple in Combat, receiving its world premiere at Steppenwolf under the direction of Max Mayer, Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros undermines this worthy conceit by employing a sitcom shorthand with TV rhythms, specious revelations, and hokey plot elements. In fact Gersten's play isn't much more credible than the deceitful communication between husbands and wives that she satirizes. Though the exploits of Bill and Hillary, Gary and Donna, or Oliver and Fawn might make for engrossing drama, those of straitlaced CIA man Bill (a typically crusty John Mahoney) and his well-educated but neurotic, crumbling wife Teresa (a noble and sympathetic Martha Lavey) do not. Like Bill's tepid explanations for sanctioning murder and other heinous crimes, Gersten's characters and plot devices are rarely plausible.
Gersten does have a gift for finding moments of humor in domestic crisis, which served her well in her 1992 drama of infidelity, My Thing of Love. Though it certainly had its moments of sitcom monotony, that play was buoyed by her wit as well as the charisma of Tom Irwin and Laurie Metcalf in the starring roles. Here Gersten once again demonstrates a talent for the face-saving wisecracks frequently uttered by those in pain. Though a great deal of the domestic squabbling in this episodic play is hackneyed and banal, watching Bill and Teresa's marriage fall apart is also often entertaining--a testament to Gersten's sense of humor. But she seems out of her element tackling the world of the CIA. Her play seems written by an outsider, someone who understands political issues in about as much detail as a US News and World Report subscriber.
The playwright clearly does not want to date her play by referring to specific political figures or crises like Iran-Contra or the gulf war. But because she refuses to get into any sort of detail, Bill's predicament seems more generic than universal. All we know is that, just as Teresa kicks him out of the house, he's embroiled in some sort of controversy that requires him to lie under oath. We also learn that he's left at home a notebook documenting all of his duplicitous and even criminal activities with the CIA. But though Gersten gives Bill a biography--a near-death experience in combat, a stint in Costa Rica--she doesn't give him much of a personality. His character is strictly the gray-suited, unflappable CIA stereotype Mahoney has played before in supporting roles (including in the film of John LeCarre's The Russia House.) He's a sexist who makes Teresa iron his clothes and pick out his cuff links and a racist, making disparaging remarks about Jews and "yellow monkeys." He speaks in vague encoded sentences ("This is not for your eyes--this is top secret....Do not allow yourself to be curious ever, ever again") that probably aren't things William Colby ever said but sound suspiciously like what CIA men say in movies.
The only unusual thing about Bill is that he wound up with Teresa. At first blush, she's by far the more believable and nuanced dramatic creation. As in My Thing of Love, Gersten draws a very convincing portrait of the addled, marginalized wife at the end of her rope. Still, it's hard to believe that this intelligent person--who worked for a time as a translator of Pablo Neruda's poems before settling down to a life of domestic boredom--has barely a smidgen of knowledge about what her husband does at work. Only in the second act, when--poof!--she becomes enlightened, does she accuse him of "committing acts of murder" and threaten to air out the dirty laundry of his CIA career by giving the incriminating notebook to his accusers or the press.
Teresa's sudden acquisition of wisdom is only one of many simplistic sitcom twists that weaken Gersten's play. The plot springs along from incident to incident and mood to mood, racking up implausibilities and zinging one-liners as it goes. A scene in which Teresa tells the news of her split with Bill to her alcoholic mom (a heartbreaking turn by Linda Stephens) is effective enough, driving home Gersten's theme of people's inability to communicate with each other, but it seems out of place and unnecessary, covering little new ground. Worse is Bill's decision to employ Tony, a bumbling, money-hungry boor who makes the Watergate plumbers look like cat burglars (though Ron Dean's performance is wickedly vulgar). Bill employing Tony to sneak into the house and retrieve his secret notebook makes about as much sense as Teresa's decision to get Tony out of the house by seducing him.
A violent, poorly choreographed sequence in which Bill violently interrogates Tony, then repents in a forced monologue is both unbelievable and ill conceived. Tony's piggishness and inappropriateness for the tasks Bill assigns him provide some of the play's funniest moments, but they're cheap, destroying credibility with every laugh. When the play's solemn conclusion arrives, and Gersten shows us the sad result of a marriage built on a foundation of lies, it's difficult to feel much empathy for the flat couple at the play's center.
A farewell scene between Bill and Teresa and the production's final image--Teresa striking out on her own, holding her hands out to the moon, the lights of the Washington skyline below her--are stunning. But the play hasn't earned their poetry and passion. Like Bill's CIA language, the scene and the image come off as phony, cunningly designed to conceal an underlying emptiness. Watching these moments, one has the eerie sense of having listened to the final heartrending speech of a great communicator who is persuasive even though you're certain he's lying. The image and the words might be moving, but they can't possibly make you believe what came before.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.