Theater Review: The Last Liberal

‘Liberal’ looks to a satirical future and Bush 3.0
February 22, 2006 12:00 AM
“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” Karl Marx (by way of Hegel) may have been describing the first and second terms of the Bush administration. Or he may have been thinking of Bob Potter’s new comedy “The Last Liberal,” a sequel of sorts to the much more serious “The Space Between the Stars,” now onstage at the Center Stage Theater, a production of Dramatic Women.
Political satire is at turns easy and difficult. Easy because the Bush administration provides weekly fodder of outrage and incompetence for the nation’s comedians; difficult because there is so much material that a Harriet Miers joke would already have to be explained a bit to make it work. (Q: Harriet who? A: Exactly).

So Mr. Potter gamely, if not entirely successfully, imagines a United States of America Inc., 2042, still being run by a version of George W. Bush (George W.W.W. 3.0, a clone of a clone of a clone) and a triumvirate of economists, the military and the Church. Justin Stark’s Dubya succinctly simulates the faltering English and the deer-in-headlights look, despite having his eyes hidden behind a Bush mask.
Dubya announces that the ultimate goal in his War on Liberalism is now in sight — the capture and persecution of the Last Liberal, and there’s a monetary reward for whoever turns him or her in.
But in fact there are two Last Liberals, Mutt and Jeff (Tiffany Story and Martin Bell), who now roam the streets homeless, bickering still over their failed marriage and who is truly deserving of the title. After all, Jeff the former professor, slept with a grad student, Mutt says, but she can gladly retain her feminist credentials.
The two are soon captured and sent off to America’s main gulags: Mutt to Guantanamo Bay, where she is interrogated by main economist Baron Scarpia (Brian Hansen); and Jeff to Abu Ghraib, where he is threatened with torture by military head Condy (Nancy Mendez). But infiltrating both prisons is a dark, mysterious figure known as Wild Card (Joseph Velasco), who appears to want to help both inmates. Or is he really pulling the strings from even higher up?
Gradually, we learn that, along with Robert Riechel’s Reverend Tommy, there is a plot being hatched among the triumvirate for a palace coup. Dubya is senile and spends his days mourning for the little lives lost in a terrorist bombing of the Small World attraction at Disneyland. Could the two Liberals make a good scapegoat for a usurpation of power? Will one Liberal turn against the other?
Mr. Potter’s play gets in some cutting jokes as well as some truly corny ones, and on paper it plays funnier than it actually turns out to be. As it is, “The Last Liberal” is neither rooted in enough reality to deliver biting satire, nor outrageous enough to work as a farce. Comparisons to “The Space Between the Stars” are a little unfair, as the genre and tone of both are at odds with each other. But “Stars” amplified the dread of early 2004 to truly unnerve. “Liberal” doesn’t feel like the release valve it should be because its targets are less logical extensions of administration policy as they are broad editorial cartoons shot through with electricity and venom.
The most uncomfortable moment comes in a re-creation of the Christ-pose torture photo from Abu Ghraib, with Jeff’s hooded body tormented by Condy and her riding crop — the iconic image returns to jolt the audience like Banquo’s ghost at Macbeth’s dinner. Yet Mutt’s scenes at Guantanamo play out instead like the supervillain hideaway in any James Bond film; it’s hard to know where Mr. Potter wants us to stand in these two presentations of unmentionable reality. As satire, it feels too safe sometimes.
Still Mr. Potter and director Heather Ondersma have given Dramatic Women and its enthusiastic cast an opportunity to stretch their talents with something original. Neither Ms. Story nor Mr. Bell have taken on stranger roles than these and they find their ranges well tested. (They respond bravely). Of the triumvirate, only Mr. Riechel’s Reverend feels menacing. Mr. Hansen’s Scarpia is too fatherly and Ms. Mendez’s military head Condy is too sexy, though all three act with relish and gusto. Oddly, it’s Mr. Stark’s Dubya that elicits our sympathy, a lost little lamb being manipulated by wolves. Mr. Velasco does all his work in the background, and is the most fun to watch, manipulating the players with slight of hand and mysterious props.
“The Last Liberal’s” ending is a bit weak; it’s too easy to suggest a female-run future as a solution to the chaos that has come before. On the other hand, the fact that Mr. Potter can see such a playful outcome to our current situation (and throw in a presidential assassination with nary a blink) suggests that the GOP has already lost the war for the public imagination. What has been won is still to be determined.

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