It’s a truism that William Shakespeare’s tragicomedy The Winter’s Tale divides into two distinct parts. In the first, Leontes, king of Sicilia, suspects his queen, Hermione, of adultery with his friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia, who has been spending a long sojourn with them but who is leaving for his home country immediately. The biggest hurdle for actors playing Leontes is to make his sudden jealousy credible. “The part is one of the hardest ever written,” Margaret Webster noted in Shakespeare Without Tears: “with almost no preparation, the emotion of it is at flood height.”
Jody and Carl, the only characters in Lonely Planet, are habitués of a sleepy little shop called Jody’s Maps in an unnamed American city. These middle-aged men, intricately rendered in Steven Dietz’s subtle, elegiac script, are being realized vividly by New York stage veterans Arnie Burton and Matt McGrath in a Keen Company production celebrating the 25th anniversary of the play’s premiere at Northlight Theatre in Evanston, Ill. Lonely Planet, winner of the PEN Center USA Award for Drama, was written when the arts were being defoliated by an epidemic beyond the American medical community’s control. AIDS is the background of the play, but not its subject.
A classic case of mistaken identity sets a hilarious ball in motion in The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 comedy, set in a small town, a backwater of “mud and more mud.” The plot follows the mayor (the robust Michael McGrath) who has heard that a government inspector is coming to town—incognito. The mayor and his crooked cronies—the school principal (David Manis), the judge (Tom Alan Robbins) and the hospital director (Stephen DeRosa)—immediately try to clean up the mess they have made of government buildings and services.
The cleverly titled Tail! Spin! is only tangentially related to a deadly airplane maneuver. Think of “tail” as a euphemism for sex, and “spin” as the result, and you’ll be close to the subject of the sketches satirizing four politicians whose sex scandals were once hot but now are receding from memory. "Tailspin" might be applied to what happened to their careers as a result.
The freshest is that of Anthony Weiner; he’s joined by South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, former Idaho Senator Larry Craig, and former Florida congressman Mark Foley. Rachel Dratch, the petite Saturday Night Live alumna, takes on an array of betrayed wives, as well as Barbara Walters. Mocking the hypocrisy of these men is the chief aim of playwright Mario Correa, and the dialogue is taken from the record. At the outset, a projection reads, “Honestly. This is what they actually said.”
Correa intercuts the interviews and denials, the confessions and the sanctimonious interrogations, so cleverly that it freshens the old news, while reminding us of the details that have faded. Further helpful projections by Caite Hevner Kemp advise, for instance, that Craig was in the Singing Senators, a barbershop quartet; Craig, you may remember, was arrested in a public toilet at the Minneapolis airport in 2007 for soliciting an undercover policeman for sex. Sean Dugan plays him with a faux-resonant voice as if he were trying hard to keep it in a manly register.
The crazy-quilt of dialogue yields surprising results. In an interview with Craig, NBC News’s Matt Lauer asks, “You wouldn’t view [being homosexual] as a source of great shame if you had to admit it?” Craig responds, “I’m not sure that I’ve ever looked at anyone else’s sex life as a great shame.” And immediately Correa pops in a flashback to 1998 and a speech by the bristling politico: “The American people already know Bill Clinton is a bad boy, a naughty boy. I’m going to speak out for the citizens of my state who, in the majority, think Bill Clinton is probably even a nasty, bad, naughty boy.”
The four politicians are skewered mercilessly, but Correa doesn’t stop there. From the pompous news inquisitors to the “wronged women,” everyone comes in for the drubbing they deserve.
For instance, there's Sydney Leathers, an “Indiana progressive activist” who was “poked” on Facebook by Weiner and later spoke against him. The projection displays the information that “Leathers went on to star in the porno Weiner and Me,” and Dratch, as the activist, reads it off with a smile of pride, but then checks herself, darkens her countenance, and says, “I’m disgusted by him.”
Dan Knechtes's sharp production also calls for improvisation. When Burton as Mark Foley, the closeted Florida congressman who lewdly pursued male pages on the Internet and in person, delivers a speech to the audience, he singles out one man in the front row (the night I attended, Burton’s choice was a bodybuilder). Foley lasciviously eyes the man’s thigh, asks whether he works out, and then pokes and squeezes the well-developed leg.
In the last sketch, Tom Galantich plays a strikingly handsome, gray-haired Mark Sanford with smooth likability, making it all the more believable that South Carolinians actually reelected him even after his scandal, which involved an affair with an Argentinean woman and the ruse from his staff that Sanford, who was in Buenos Aires, was “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Dratch plays his wife, Jenny, and, with their marriage on the rocks, the scene of Sanford wheedling her like a schoolboy to let him have an affair—“Why can’t you just give me permission?”—is bound to bring a smile.
Indeed, smiles and grins are plentiful in this smartly conceived and skillfully played burlesque, although belly laughs are scarcer. Perhaps the hypocrisy on display is the reason. That, too, can be blamed on the politicians.
Tickets to Tail! Spin! range from $25–$75 and can be arranged online at www.tailspinshow.com or by calling 866-811-4111. The show plays through Nov. 30 at the Culture Project, Lynn Redgrave Theater, 45 Bleecker St. at Lafayette. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 5:30 p.m. on Sunday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. on Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays.