The Genesius Theater Group, a development company that produces new works by playwrights never seen in New York, has gotten off to a promising start with Fair Game. The title has a double meaning, and it reflects the dense, challenging, and timely examination of American politics that Karl Gajdusek has written. Not least of its virtues is that it takes the intelligence of its audience seriously. There's more to chew on here than a bagful of taffy—almost too much. Midwestern Gov. Karen Werthman (Joy Franz) has just won 13 states on Super Tuesday, and her campaign manager, Miranda Carter (an icily magnetic Caralyn Kozlowski), is overjoyed but wary. In the moment of triumph, Karen's son, Simon, arrives with the announcement that he has been suspended from teaching at Princeton for an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student.
In scenes that alternate between events at the university and the damage control at the statehouse, Gajdusek poses some thorny questions. How should the governor respond to inquiries about her son? How will her slick opponent, Senator Bill Graber, capitalize on it? Will the cynical Simon (Chris Henry Coffey), who has hidden in the ivory tower, be drawn back into the rough-and-tumble of politics?
"You don't even care who wins, do you?" the frustrated Miranda complains to him. "Just study the patterns, sifting through the data. ... It used to be put it on the line or shut the hell up."
Simon's disengagement may stem from the death of his father, the previous governor, who shot himself during a scandal that involved skimming money from the elderly. The suicide, however, is a secret; the spin was that he died of a heart attack.
In fact, "spin" of various sorts is crucial in the play, notably the spin of fortune's wheel, bringing the unforeseen small event that may affect the course of history, such as Simon's affair with Sarah-Doe Osborne's confident but often sullen 19-year-old coed. Although Simon's journey back to engagement with love and politics is central to director Andrew Volkoff's generally well-paced production, their romance is never as interesting as the political strife.
Gajdusek's story, which includes dirty tricks and unexpected romantic liaisons, unfolds confidently. The second scene provides an irresistible hook: Over the phone Simon and Miranda challenge each other to identify famous quotations from political history. Their parlor game engages us like a narcotic (a metaphor the characters themselves apply to politics). Who knew that Bobby Kennedy's "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not" was a quotation from George Bernard Shaw? (Matt O'Hare's ambitious sound design of historical voices adds a lot to the piece's immediacy and texture.)
Strains do appear in the second act. The stocky, gray-haired Graber arrives. Although Ray McDavitt gives a tour de force performance as the politico to whom lying spontaneously is as easy as breathing, he can't quite put over a plot twist that almost beggars belief. No wonder Graber is a more compelling candidate than Franz's aloof and uncomfortable Karen—but then, another of Gajdusek's points is that dishonesty is essential to political success, and Karen hates politics.
There's also the nagging suspicion that Karen would never be able to shake off the financial scandal that tainted her husband—how much did she really know?—to become a viable presidential candidate. And in the last scene, Gajdusek's decision to give the actors dialogue that hinges on chance—the characters spin a bottle and deliver lines depending on whom the bottle points at—plays awkwardly. (On certain nights it may move more quickly.) Still, this is one contest in which the issues are more important than the candidates.