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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Fair and Decent Red Meat for Political Extremists

Also see Bob's reviews of The Toxic Avenger and Rising Water

Michael Ellison and Alan Pagano
Civil and respectful discourse has become a scarce commodity in American politics. Liberals and conservatives cannot even come close to agreeing on what the parameters for such discourse should be. Paranoia abounds in the land. It is impossible to predict where all of this will lead. The powerful, permanent establishments permit the rest of us to choose for office from among Democrats and Republicans who principally serve them. Perhaps eventually, they will be able to hold in check the fires of hatred which the politicians who serve them have stoked among otherwise rational people. Perhaps not. However, of one thing I am certain: plays like Thomas H. Diggs' agit-prop melodrama Fair and Decent which opened at Luna Stage this week will not contribute to the solution.

Step right up, folks, and we'll introduce you to five of the most hypercritical, backstabbing sickos you will ever meet. Each one has or will sell out at least one of the others. Lies are their stock in trade and they are all essentially sociopathic losers. It is 1980 and Ronald Reagan has just defeated Jimmy Carter. Professor Phil Addison is the director of a new Republican think tank (institute) whose function is to come up with policies and programs for the Reagan administration agenda. Addison is hiring "teams" (of two, it seems), each of which will develop a policy paper. Of course, it is his intention to steal credit for himself for each of the policies developed by the teams.

Addison hires the repellant Trip Nichols to head a team. Trip is a world class loser. He is a fat, asexual nerd with a skin condition which causes bloody sores to perpetually cover his face. Trip has been employed as a lowly "road op" for the G.O.P. spending all of his time going from city to city, motel to motel. He is content to live without friends or any social life. He thinks that he is a smart operator and can manipulate others, but ... well, let us wait and see.

Worst of all is born again fundamentalist Christian (boo), Reed Albright. He hates and is ashamed of his son because the boy has Fragile X syndrome (genetic disorder causing mental retardation). The unemployed Albright has been working for the Reagan campaign as a member of his minister's operation. Now his minister has recommended Albright for a job with the institute. Albright, who had attended college with Trip, regards him with utter contempt. Still, he cajoles Trip into putting him on his team. Albright joins with Trip to undermine Addison by feeding him the "wrong" arguments for eliminating the Fairness Doctrine. Although the "right" arguments which they come up with are clearly wrong, too.

And there is Albright's born-again wife, Marybeth. She gleefully and erroneously perceives Trip to be a homosexual. She advises her husband, "If I'm right, use it for leverage. Dangle it before Addison like a carrot."

Albright then seems to try, without success, to seduce Trip into making a move on him. However, when Trip reneges on an agreement to allow Albright to present their policy paper on the Fairness Doctrine, Albright threatens to falsely accuse Trip of sexual harassment. He lays out a convincing scenario for his false accusation and then, veering out of control, viciously beats up Trip. Albright tells Trip to "Grab your stuff and get out of here" before brutally and curtly informing him that his dying cancer-ridden father has been taken to the hospital. This guy is on his way to being a Congressman (no, really, I'm not making this stuff up).

The fifth character physically on stage is Trip's father, Gilbert Nichols. The dying man is on his last legs. In the past, he and Addison have back stabbed one another viciously. Nichols has an irresistibly funny line: "Do you know how much was spent on getting the 'liberal bias' idea spread? It's a miracle I only got cancer."

The central political premise of the play is that by "repealing" the hugely controversial Fairness Doctrine, the G.O.P. stifled freedom of speech on the airwaves, paving the way for control of the airwaves by Republican "owners." Furthermore, it is strongly implied that the unanswered spreading of disinformation about Iraq on talk radio was responsible for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Fair and Decent's evil doers, Trip and Albright, plot. "What if Reagan stacks the Supreme Court with a couple of free marketeers like Bork and Scalia?" Of course, author Thomas H. Diggs knows that the Fairness Doctrine was a regulation that the Federal Communications Commission put into effect in 1949. The Warren Court found it to be constitutional; however, the Court stated that the regulation carried the seeds for suppression of free speech and, that if it ever did so, they would be forced to declare it unconstitutional. The F.C.C. eventually suspended use of the Doctrine in 1985. I should note that Mario Cuomo is lined up by the think tank to join them in opposing the Fairness Doctrine, and, without amplification, an opinion that it infringes the First Amendment is offered. However, this is buried in a polemic about the evil doers seizing ownership of what they consider the commodity of radio air time. I'm barely touching the surface here, but contentious distortions in Fair and Decent can objectively be said to be false and deceptive. It is amazing in an age when the Internet and cable television would seem to have obviated any reason for restoration of the Doctrine, it continues to be a phony "red meat" topic for both the left and the right.

A humorous example of the disregard for truth in Fair and Decent is when in a scene set in 1980, one of think tankers (I think that it is Addison) says, "We got a guy ready to go—Rush Limbaugh—once we eliminate the Fairness Doctrine." The only problem is that Limbaugh's only radio experience at the time was seven years as a local disc jockey during the seventies. From 1979 to 1984, Limbaugh was director of promotions for the Kansas City Royals.

Director Jane Mandel has made effective use of her flexible theatre space by providing four different playing areas. There is a very wide playing area to the front which provides stage sets for two locations. Alongside a full set for the think tank office is a raised, boxed set depicting the Albright living room. To the right of the audience is a boxed set for Gilbert Albright's home office. Scenes set in other locations are played on the wide, narrow stage space in front of the first two sets. While Mandel is unable to generate much interest in Diggs' gargoyles in the first act, she and her actors do achieve a strong, visceral, punch-in-the-stomach intensity in the scene in which Albright viciously dismantles Trip.

While subtlety and nuance are not the order of the day here, the entire cast is more than adequate to the demands of the play. Alan Pagano as the weak and stupid Trip, the most dimensional character on stage, manages to realistically encompass both Trip's foolish self regard and pathetic reality. Richard Bowden and Jennifer Dean as the Albrights fulfill the demands of roles which require them to look and act wholesome until they are ready to put their cold, hypocritical connivances on display. Veterans Richard Bowden (Addison) and Thom Molyneaux (Gilbert) portray hard, smooth professionals smoothly professionally.

Even at a time when it is all too easy to believe the worst of our political leaders (approval ratings for both the President and Congress are understandably in the toilet), Fair and Decent is so grossly overstated that it is unlikely to be embraced by anyone other than the most delusional and immoderate among us.

Fair and Decent continues performances (Evening: Thursday 7:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 8 p.m./ Mats. Sun. 2 p.m.) through November 2, 2008

at Luna Stage, 695 Bloomfield Ave., Montclair, N.J., 07042. Box Office: 973-744-3309; online:

Fair and Decent by Thomas H. Diggs; directed by Jane Mandel

Richard Bowden………….Phil Addison
Jennifer Dean……….Marybeth Albright
Michael Ellison………….Reed Albright
Thom Molyneaux………Gilbert Nichols
Alan Pagano……………………….Trip

Photo: Charlotte McKim

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- Bob Rendell

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