No, not the George W. Bush presidency, though in many people's minds that description is still apt. But rather, the nearly eight-year spate of toothless, careless, and rudderless "political" theatre that's glutted New York stages while saying practically nothing worth listening to. Craig Wright's Lady, which just opened at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, may not be the worst example we've yet seen, but it ought to be the last.
The scenario - it can hardly be called a plot - finds three childhood friends, now in their late 30s, on a hunting trip in Southern Illinois. Dyson (Paul Sparks), the liberal democrat, is incensed to his marrow about his 18-year-old son planning to join the Marines. Graham (David Wilson Barnes) is the Representative Dyson helped get elected - as a Democrat running on a Republican platform - but who now openly supports the Iraq war and President Bush, and who might have convinced Dyson's son to enlist. Kenny (Michael Shannon) is the pot-smoking Everyman caught in the middle, who cares only for his loyal dog, Lady.
Do I need to continue? Do I need to pretend you can't guess even from this barebones synopsis who will be shot, why, and what the repercussions will be? Does anyone out there still need to see this? Perhaps, when the play was first written in 2006, this story might still have had the underexposed immediacy it would need to look and play like something other than last-gasp proselytizing before President Bush is no longer such an easy target.
I'm not convinced Wright's idea of a "balanced" dialogue about these defiantly divisive issues would ever have felt especially trenchant, though they might have seemed like something more than a satirical stereotype of the modern antiwar play. Even if a majority of audiences agree with Wright, and they probably do, don't they deserve something more original than Dyson literally sputtering with rage as he blames Graham for killing the son who hasn't yet left for boot camp? Or might they not prefer - just once - a more probing view of conservative psychology than "We have to be in charge and do Whatever occurs to us to do until Someone Can Stop Us. And when they can, it'll be over"? (Capitals are Wright's, for the record.)
Wright does, however, flesh out things with enough details to maintain his "serious playwright" street cred. Dyson's own twisted concepts of morality make him something more than an innocent victim, and give Graham some more tangible weapons to wield in his own defense. And there's a crisp style to the piece that makes for an appropriately laid-back setting for all the charged confrontations, which director Dexter Bullard and lighting designer Nicole Pearce help realize to its full autumnal potential.
But with Sparks's performance limited to yet another variant on his well-cultivated library-redneck persona, and Shannon so druggedly dullish that finishing a sentence feels like a monumental achievement, you're not even allowed to experience this limited evening at its most incisive. At least Barnes dresses Graham with a serious sophistication that suggests Washington has given him a new outlook: He's so subdued and so detached that you understand the depths of his feelings and, just maybe, the depths of his shame in a way you can't with Dyson or Kenny.
If it's clear that we're meant to see him as yet another innocent who's been duped by a corrupt cabal, Wright never crystallizes for us the latent humanity beneath his new worldview, which makes Graham's transformations to toady and back again far more symbolic than substantive. Though he comes the closest of the three, he is never the one thing he needs to be for the play to even partially succeed: a believable person.
In his last play at Rattlestick, The Pavilion, Wright took a sympathetic and celestial look at dreams deferred and hopes faded and rekindled. There, though, the setting was "safe," not high-stakes realism but a high-school reunion on the threshold of eternity, which allowed the most mundane memories and the most ordinary regrets to sparkle. That's what Lady, like so many other political plays, needs: Playwrights longing for us to share their vision of what war truly strips from us lose their battle when they forget how crucial it is for magic to accompany the message.