- Donald Carrier as Francis (right) channels Abe Lincoln for brother Leo (Brian Carter).
In the classic Frank Capra film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart showed how one man could buck the congressional system and protect the interests of the people. But flash forward almost 70 years to today, and we see a capital city so crammed with arrogant lickspittles, warmongers, and pathological incompetents that even Jefferson Smith would probably just stay home and tend his blog.
If there is an upside to the increasing levels of chicanery in D.C., it's that a number of people have risen to the occasion and come out with truly incredible works of political theater. From Tony Kushner's searing Angels in America to President Bush's hilarious turn in front of the "Mission Accomplished" banner four years ago, the competition in this arena is pretty tough.
That's why Lincolnesque, a play written by Capra wannabe John Strand and now at the Cleveland Play House, is left somewhat in the lurch. It aspires to soar on the wings of good ol' American idealism, with a generous dash of humor, but the plot is mired knee-deep in Potomac mud.
Leo and Francis are brothers pursuing their dream in Washington. Leo is a speechwriter for an evidently cloddish congressman named David Carpenter, while Francis is supposedly a master-of-the-universe-style political strategist, who has flipped out and now thinks he is Abe Lincoln, complete with a homeless pal as his secretary of war. The key words here are evidently and supposedly, since we never see Carpenter (at all) or Francis (in his former, competent state). As a result, we don't know what Leo is up against as Carpenter's imagemeister or how far around the bend Francis has progressed.
Still, Leo helps monitor his bro's medications, takes him to his doctor's appointments, and tries to help him keep his job buffing office-building floors. All this time, Francis assumes various ramrod-stiff poses, as was Lincoln's wont, and communicating using quotes from Abe's canon.
But when Carpenter's fire-breathing new consultant Carla calls for a campaign renovation in the middle of his run for reelection, a desperate Leo follows his brother's cue and begins weaving some of Francis/Lincoln's phrasing and noble sense of purpose into the congressman's scripts. This sounds more amusing than it actually is onstage, thanks to the playwright's reluctance to put any edge or point of view in his observations. No parties are defined, and no hot-button issues are addressed, so the play is essentially a political comedy without the politics. That could fly, back when Capra-corn was king, but it's a harder sell in the era of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Sean Hannity.
Played on Todd Rosenthal's skewed Lincoln Memorial set (which almost gives the impression that the actors will be crushed under leaning trompe l'oeil columns), the cast is solid, but less than spectacular. As Francis, handsome Donald Carrier has fine comic timing, but he never succeeds in creating a character (within a character) we care about. And although no one alive ever heard Lincoln speak, we probably wish he sounded a bit more captivating than Carrier does.
Playwright Strand makes Leo so mushy and malleable, it's hard for Brian Carter to fashion a recognizable person -- like trying to sculpt a bust from Cream of Wheat. We're never clear about what Leo really desires (other than to get to the next scene), so there is nobody to root for between the two main characters. As a result, Leo's scenes with ball-crusher Carla (Tracey Conyer Lee) are either unfocused or -- in the case of their intimate later encounter -- simply weird.
Double-cast as the loopy secretary of war and as hotshot political consultant Harold Daly, Walter Charles generates some laughs. Unfortunately, he too is sabotaged by the script. While Francis is buffing floors one night, he meets Daly, who is impressed with Francis/Abe's refreshing honesty and wants to hire the janitor as an idea man. It's hard to believe a type-A hardass like Daly would strike up a conversation with a floor polisher in the lobby of his building. But without that unlikely extended interchange, Strand loses his subplot.
On the plus side, director Michael Bloom keeps the pacing tight and wrings all the humor out of this contrived vanilla script. It's funny when someone talks about wanting to move out of Washington and Francis, speaking from Lincoln's 19th-century perspective, helpfully intones, "There is ample room in the western territories." But this is a one-trick pony that gets pretty wobbly, particularly when it's hinted that Francis may be putting everyone on and faking his presidential psychosis.
This all resolves itself in a muddled ending created -- one can only guess -- by Strand mulling over a couple different conclusions and deciding to go with both of them. In sum, this is pretty weak tea. Real politics are a lot funnier than Lincolnesque ever manages to be.