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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

A View of the Mountains Preaches to the Choir
New Jersey Repertory Company


Katrina Ferguson, Michael Zlabinger, Eva Kaminsky and
John Little

Playwright Lee Blessing's best known play, A Walk in the Woods, was first presented at the O'Neill Playwrights Conference in 1986. For those who may have forgotten that well-received fictional two-hander, it was inspired by informal conversations between a Soviet and an American negotiator held in Geneva in 1982 that produced a (never implemented) formula for an agreement for mutual reduction of missiles deployed in Europe. A stated aim of Blessing was to help Americans overcome their cold war era stereotypes about the Soviets. Although the police state that was the Soviet Union and its enslavement of the eastern European countries were blithely dismissed as a matter of geography and essentially ignored, the play was a valuable and insightful reminder of the shared humanity of the people of both nations.

Now, in 2014, during a period apparently totally devoid of any threat from radical Islam or a resurgent, seemingly expansionist Russian president, comes a new play from Blessing entitled A View of the Mountain. This time out, the playwright has found a far more dangerous adversary for John Honeyman, the American diplomat from the earlier play. It is two hateful, psychotically evil, violent, foaming at the mouth faces of the tea party. No namby-pamby messing around with the rationales of their positions, the situations which gave rise to them, or, even, Lord forbid, substantively debating them (That is not quite so, as father and son do briefly debate the usefulness of cold war negotiations with the Soviets. However, Blessing wildly distorts the policy and actions of the GOP and Reagan during the Cold War era.). Blessing is only interested in presenting a lurid depiction of the pure evil of those with whom he disagrees.

The setting is a terrace on the luxurious Hudson River estate of Honeyman and his second wife, Isla, in New York's Catskill Mountains. The time is "late August" in a presidential election year. It would make the most sense if that year were 2009, but, as it is a cautionary tale, it could be a future election year when the tea party has become resurgent.

As the play begins, Honeyman and Isla are awaiting the arrival of his adult son Will Branch with his wife Gwynn. When Will was eleven years old, he had encouraged his mother to leave Honeyman for the Reaganite U.S. senator with whom she was having an affair. Will so hated his father that he adopted the surname of his stepfather. Honeyman's failing was that he was too often away from home pursuing international diplomacy. The twisted Will, now the tea party supporting junior senator from Tennessee, is at the top of the list of potential running mates for the governor who has the GOP presidential nomination locked up. Honeyman refers to Will as a "creature."

Although they never see or speak to one another, Will is coming to New York after receiving a message from his father stating "Will, I have something you can't afford to ignore. Get up here right now."

It develops that Honeyman has long been in possession of a document concerning Will, the public revelation of which he feels certain will destroy Will's political career. The contemplation of Will's ascension to the presidency is so repugnant to Honeyman (so bad for the country, he says) that it is his intention to make the document public, if Will does not take himself out of the running for the vice presidential nomination.

Now to the angel and devil portraits of the wives of p่re et fils. Isla, who was born wealthy, lived abroad and travelled the world experiencing different cultures. She married an Iranian diplomat in London who kidnapped their son by returning to Teheran alone with the boy while she was studying ("My first husband and I had a complex relationship. I don't accept what he did, but he did it out of deep conviction" (reading that line, I would think that it has to be satiric, but it surely isn't played that way). Now she has returned to a home on the family estate, and dispenses large sums of money to humanitarian causes through her own charitable foundations. Her marriage is threatened, because she is so pure that she cannot tolerate the idea that her heretofore moral saint of a husband is even contemplating blackmailing Will into not running for vice president.

As for the psychopathic Gwynn, throughout the house and the property, and on Honeyman and Isla, she employs a metal detector in order to make certain that they are not being recorded. Wherever she and Will go, she has all the foodstuffs tasted and tested in order to assure that it has not been poisoned. The only humor that I detected in this as it is played is, when Isla asks if she had ever found any poison, and Gwynn ("the Thin") responds, "Not so far. Which shows you how well it's working." Gwynn is cruel (about Isla's lost son), dominating, philogynistic, offers the sale of government in exchange for political contributions, and offers bribes to suppress damaging information. Gwynn has two adopted daughters. "Made a decision in grad school. Had my tubes tied ... Anyway, tubal ligation was an afterthought compared to the other thing ... Double mastectomy. Elective ... It made sense. Terrible family history. No reason to go through life lugging around two cancer bags. I got it all done. ('In grad school?') I wanted a political career. Why interrupt it later?"

There is one train of thought in A View of the Mountains that seems to particularly reflect Blessing at a personal level, and which I hear regularly in respect to the tea party from people who consider themselves the model of tolerance. Honeyman is telling Will that he had been essentially a diplomat without being that much of a liberal, but he was pushed by "... a bunch of Tea Party assholes who think that compromise is a criminal act and who stop of nothing to win."

Now, this is a theatre review and I am not evaluating the efficacy of any political or governmental issue. What I am objecting to is the demonization of concerned, decent, hard-working Americans for partisan political gain. Why has it become de rigueur for "assholes" to have become the word of choice to describe those who oppose certain policies? Furthermore, there has been a complete turnaround from the liberalism with which I was brought up, which expressed its opposition to McCarthyism for maintaining that "the end justifies the means". I would ask Lee Blessing if he is really willing to compromise with "assholes".

John Little in the role of Honeyman conveys dignity, decency and quiet assurance. Little manages this even as Honeyman turns on a dime and takes an irreconcilable position for Blessing's didactic purposes. Katrina Ferguson as Isla delightfully conveys ironic attitude and near unflappability. John Zlabinger is the victim of a script which does not clearly define the extent of Will's strength in relation to his wife and family. Eva Kaminsky nicely delineates changes in the behavior of the horrid, yet practical Gwynn while remaining within the narrow range which Blessing's script allows her. It would be wrong to expect Kaminsky to make Gwynn any less shrill and unappealing than Blessing intended.

Evan Bergman has directed with a deadly earnestness which minimizes whatever satire occasionally raises its head. Only late in the course of this 90-minute one act, when actual physical battling breaks out, does the play feel like a comedy. Jessica Parks has provided a bright, open, abstract set whose white walls have designs which suggest the surrounding countryside.

The information which Honeyman has on his son will not be revealed here. Suffice it to say that its unfolding expands Blessing's attack on the evil and perverse right. There is no possibility in the world of A View of the Mountains for compromise, honest disagreement or considering new approaches to economic, societal and international problems. It does promote a rigid political agenda and demonize those opposed to it. Just how worthy is that?

A View of the Mountains relies on the assumption that progressive audiences will embrace the grotesque and vicious demonization of their fellow Americans with whom they disagree.

A View of the Mountains continues performances (Evenings: Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday 3 pm; Sunday 2 pm) through May 25, 2014, at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740; box office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.

A View of the Mountains by Lee Blessing: directed by Evan Bergman

Cast:
Isla Honeyman………………………Katrina Ferguson
Gwynn Branch…………………………..Eva Kaminsky
John Honeyman……………………………..John Little
Will Branch……………………………...John Zlabinger
Andrey Honeyman…..Jon Erik Nielsen, Jared Rush


Photo: SuzAnne Barabas


- Bob Rendell



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