For writers on the political left, the midterm elections have delivered a mixed blessing. The results may have signaled the waning days of the Bush administration, but they have also created a crisis in source material. Bush has provided an endless wealth of subject matter for works like David Hare's Stuff Happens and Saturday Night Live sketches. For those looking for one more nostalgic exercise in Bush bashing, A.R. Gurney's Post Mortem, a problematic but overall funny farce about the future of American politics, may fit the bill. Gurney's new play explores a Christian dystopia in the not too distant future. In this America, all citizens are required to carry a copy of the Bible, most offices are routinely bugged, and theater classes analyze evangelical comedy. In this political atmosphere, Alice (Tina Benko), a renegade lecturer in the theater department of a backwater Christian university, attempts to thwart the academic and sexual advances of one of her undergraduates, an industrious but not too bright English major named Dexter (Christopher Kromer).
Dexter has recently discovered the "lost" plays of one A.R. Gurney, a "minor dramatist" of the 20th century. He is particularly struck by one of Gurney's plays titled—you guessed it—Post Mortem, a work so profound it has the power to put an end to the theocratic dictatorship as well as solve longstanding social problems ranging from health care to public transportation. But first Dexter has to convince Alice to help him, and to love him.
Like Gurney's recent works O Jerusalem and Screen Play, Post Mortem is receiving its world premiere at the Flea Theater. All three plays are overtly leftist, and both Post Mortem and Screen Play look toward a future where Christian fascism has taken over America. The plays shy away from naturalism to display a sort of self-referential postmodernism where they contemplate their own theatricality.
At one point in Post Mortem, Dexter asks Alice (one may assume he is asking the audience as well), "Are you ready for a recognition scene, Alice? I recognize now I'm a loser." Most of the play's irony comes from its references to the "discovered" play of the same name and the "fate" of the author, A.R. Gurney, who may or may not have been killed by Dick Cheney. While this kind of wink-and-nod trickery is entertaining at first, it becomes overplayed, especially in the second act, where the explanation of a Kennedy-like assassination conspiracy and its subsequent cover-up is painstakingly detailed.
Though the farcical first act is engaging and humorous in its crowd-pleasing and liberal in-jokes and self-irony, the second act presents other major problems. It begins with a tedious lecture on the evils of cellphones (especially in the theater), which may allude to one of the playwright's personal bugbears, perhaps more than he intended.
The spiel is delivered by Betsy (Shannon Burkett), who serves as a kind of interlocutor/hostess for Dexter and Alice in the talk-show format that makes up the second act. This kind of sermonizing illustrates the act's flaws, as the satire on talk shows attempts to create a new dramatic arc. Instead, with the characters talking about what happened in the years between the first and second acts, any dramatic action is circumvented, and what results is characters talking about what they did, which is as unexciting as it sounds.
As Alice, Benko plays the farce at full tilt: she is an overwrought academic desperately looking for the tools to use against an oppressive society. At times, however, the seemingly English accent that she affects can be distracting. Burkett, as the annoying Betsy, is spunky and earnest. As Dexter, Kromer is the least farcical character, playing the eager newcomer somewhat too lightly in comparison with the other characters.
Though this production of Post Mortem is not perfect, credit must be given to Gurney and especially to the Flea. Beginning with Anne Nelson's The Guys (about firefighters lost on Sept. 11), it has demonstrated that it is one of the city's few theater companies to continually challenge and question the consequences of living in a post-9/11 America.