There can be no doubt that truth is frequently stranger than fiction. What screenplay writer or playwright would dare conceive of using an enormous figure of Jesus Christ or a chemical that causes hair loss as a method of removing the power from a major dictator? What audience would believe them?
Yet it is these very ideas and more that Brian Stewart presents to us in his new play, Castro's Beard, currently playing at the New 42nd Street Theatre. When a group of government officials in 1960, under the lead of Ted Torphy (H. Clark Kee), get together to brainstorm ways of removing Fidel Castro from power, our first instinct may be to disbelieve them, yet the program insists they were legitimately under consideration. Each idea the men is seemingly more outlandish than the last, whether the direct military action suggested by Bill Brawner (Jeff Berry) or any number of poisons and chemicals recommended by Tom Madison (Christopher D. Roberts).
For the first act and most of the second, Castro's Beard is little more than a parade of these ideas before the audience. Though the mens' suggestions are patently absurd, Stewart's script is earnest enough to generally keep the comedy in check. In fact, after enough of them have been presented, they cease to seem funny, and often almost seem, in their own strange way, logical. Stewart, despite a couple of missteps, never compltely loses his grip on the story.
He does, however, have a far more difficult time with his characters. Seeking to break the boundaries set forth by his characters' "types," has the fourth man on the committee, Paul Drake (David Hutson), who had been mostly quiet throughout the first act, become embroiled in discussions about Communism with both Madison and Brawner. This section of the play, occurring at the very beginning of the second act, is so forced and the tone is so radically different from everything that came before, it doesn't feel as if it belongs in the play at all. The intense barrage of facts, figures, and balanced points of view - seeming to come more from the author himself than the characters - grinds the play's already fragile rhythm to a screeching halt, and the second act never recovers.
In fact, much of Castro's Beard feels as though everyone involved - Stewart, the actors, and the director, Loree True - were viewing it from a distance. Though none of the actors give bad performances, nor do they seem completely committed or connected to their characters. True's direction is adequate for the material - variations on the men sitting around a table talking - but grows stagnant before too long.
Ultimately, though, everyone can only work with what they're given. What everyone involved in Castro's Beard - including the audience - has in front of them is an interesting premise. Such a premise, though, however intriguing, is not enough - it must be supported by a strong, theatrical script. A dry, uninvolving play is the result when that element is lacking, as it is in Castro's Beard.
The Deptford Players