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I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Robert Emmet Lunney and PJ Benjamin
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

No prisoners are taken, no shots are fired, and no bombs are detonated. But John S. Anastasi's play I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan, which just opened at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row, documents not one, not two, but three wars being waged all at the same time.

A constantly roiling undercurrent to everything that unfolds is the first war: the one in Vietnam. Two buddies, Ray and Buzz, fought together there, and, as was true of so many others, didn't emerge from it unchanged. Buzz saved Ray's life, bonding the two forever; and Ray came out with a Medal of Honor, though it's accompanied by haunting memories and demons that cannot be easily exorcised.

The pair's experience on the battlefield led them to the second war, which, as the title suggests, is a political one. In the summer of 1981, the 40th president of the United States faced off against 13,000 illegally striking air traffic controllers. He gave them 48 hours to return to work, or else they'd be fired and denied Federal employment for life. Some 1,300 went back; the others who didn't, as promised, lost their jobs.

Ray (PJ Benjamin) and Buzz (Robert Emmet Lunney), like so many other Vietnam vets (so we're told), have ended up as controllers, but don't necessarily agree about the situation. Ray is positive the unions are right, the strike will hold, and Reagan will give in, and has convinced his wife, Jane (Patricia Richardson), it's best to stay the course; Buzz, afraid of the repercussions, is less sure. The two men make the opposite choices and their relationship never recovers, so we fast-forward to 2004 (the year of Reagan's death) we see that Buzz has become wealthy and successful, while Ray is unable to provide for either the over-working Jane or their 26-year-old daughter, Tess (Danielle Faitelson).

PJ Benjamin with Danielle Faitelson and Patricia Richardson.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The third and final conflict at play is, perhaps, the most important: the tension between the play's excellent concept and its grossly uneven execution.

Anastasi does two things unquestionably right. Most important, he imparts genuine balance to the debate, letting the men deliver arguments on both sides and ultimately recognize that their decisions, more than anything any president has ever done, are responsible for where they end up. Second, by casting Jane as the mediator between the two men, Anastasi provides a natural outlet for their grievances, as well as a guide for members of the audience who are either confused or undecided about the issue.

This is, however, not quite enough. Making Ray more shell-shocked by domestic struggles than those he experienced overseas leads to a number of ridiculous moments—foremost of which is the control tower he's constructed in the attic that lets him relive his glory days landing American commercial flights. Plus, individual plot threads are predictable when they're not outright hackneyed, with (among others) Buzz offering Ray a ceremonial job and (yes) Tess falling in love with Buzz's lawyer son. Worse: Buzz is so rich and Ray so destitute, that you can't help but feel Anastasi is stacking the dramatic deck in a way he refused to elsewhere.

The biggest problem is inconsistency. After feuding for two decades, Ray and Buzz's "reunion" (at Jane's behest) is bewilderingly sedate, leaving you to question all the fuss the play insists on. Then, in a cringe-inducing second-act twist, the formerly kind and thoughtful Buzz adopts an awful, elitist attitude about the kids' marriage that instantly transforms him into a mustache-twirling villain. Such on-a-dime attitude shifts make it impossible to take any of the characters seriously for too long.

Charles Abbott's unfocused direction doesn't fully compensate for this; though the action is decently staged, the transitions between crucial character moments and scenes simply aren't there. Craig Napoliello's set and Jeff Kroger's lights nicely capture the everyday oppression of Ray and Jane's living room, but go unjustifiably bonkers when the attic comes into play.

The actors can't smooth over the gaps in the script, but they all do what they can. Faitelson is generally appealing as Tess, but the role provides her few genuine opportunities to make her essential. Benjamin embodies a believable laboring-man's fervor in the 1981 scene that melts into mania (if sometimes too much) later, though he doesn't project much in the way of warmth. Lunney is better in the more human scenes, at least in Act I, but grates when Buzz must turn chilly later.

Richardson, best known for eight seasons on the TV sitcom Home Improvement, scores as much as she can in the meatiest role, executing both sly comedy and emotional desperation well. Her sophistication contrasts nicely against the earthier Benjamin, and seeing how her Jane will be try to hold her marriage—and herself—together becomes the emotional center point of the evening. Richardson gives a pleasing, effective performance, even though she doesn't tap as deep as she could into Jane's rage.

Of course, fire isn't what's lacking in I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan: The characters have every right to be upset with each other. But because their anger lacks definition and isn't channeled in ways that really build upon the premise, a smoky smolder is the closest we get to recognizable heat. If the play weren't fighting on so many fronts, it would have a better chance of avoiding this most regrettable of casualties.

I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan
Through August 25
Beckett Theater, 410 West 42nd between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedules: Telecharge

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