Brandon Woolley

‘God Game’: Pollyanna at the polls

With real-life politics deeply mired in the Cynical and Cutthroat Game, Suzanne Bradbeer's play seems just too nice for belief

“What nice people,” I mused as I watched three characters politely discuss politics in Suzanne Bradbeer’s The God Game. Among the three of them, they shared an easy, convivial charm, and even in the throes of disagreement they barely interrupted each other, let alone name-call or yell or scream. They were nice, I thought, in a way we’ve come to assume that politicians behind closed doors are not.

The Brandon Woolley production continuing through this Saturday, March 7, at Shaking-the-Tree, could scarcely be better timed, as Oregon reels from real-life political upheaval.  Longtime governor John Kitzhaber’s just stepped down after allegations that his consultant girlfriend breached ethics. His replacement, Kate Brown, is the first openly bisexual governor. And now, bingo! Here’s a drama about a political couple strategizing together privately about their next public move, with a side plot about a gay political operative trying to downplay his sexuality to suit his non-activist post. It’s almost too perfect. No … it is too perfect. Because real, current affairs aren’t even as civil as the so-called drama in this play.

Laura Faye Smith: prayer and politics in "The God Game." Photo: Gary Norman

Laura Faye Smith: prayer and politics in “The God Game.” Photo: Gary Norman

If you’ll permit some spoilers: Lisa and Tom are a Virginia Republican senator and his first lady. Matt is their friend and fellow politico, an assistant to a governor that the couple secretly loathes. Matt’s also a gay man who’s chosen politics over love; he dumped Tom’s brother (who’s also Lisa’s best friend) to ingratiate himself to his fellow conservatives. Matt visits Tom and Lisa at home on their anniversary to invite Tom to be his governor boss’s presidential running mate, and he suggests that Tom make a similar ethical compromise to his own—namely, fudge the truth about his religious faith.

What would normally constitute a plot summary, counts in this case as a series of spoilers because:

a) the whole first act is spent revealing these details.

b) Bradbeer seems to enjoy fooling her audience before cluing them in—as in the opening scene, where a seductive Lisa feigns fear of getting caught in bed with Tom by Tom’s “wife”— when actually, (twist!) she’s his wife, just bein’ witty. Matt’s arrival also begins as a mystery; then we gradually learn his relationship to the pair.

These are basically the only talking points of the whole play, and talking is all that happens, and the dialogue, though expertly delivered, is not sufficiently quotable, insightful, believable, or dramatic to carry the play. But maybe the most striking problem is the characters’ impermeable comfort, which lowers the stakes of their much-discussed decision-making to near irrelevance.

Vice presidency, a hop-skip-jump from the highest office in the land, should feel like a big deal, and the characters spend plenty of lines declaring that it is. Yet somehow one is left wondering, “Whether they win or lose, what will actually change?” Life, liberty, health, wealth, property … none of these assets is risked by the average American politician in the current climate. Where other nations’ leaders face threats of coup and revolution, American politicians win and lose elections without any major sacrifice. A loss of one office is a springboard into another, or a painless fall into a cabinet position or a cushy lobbying job. Even losing a lover in pursuit of power (which, in this story, Lisa threatens and Matt has experienced) is merely a trade: the love of one, for the love of the masses.

Oh! But this is a higher question. Of ethics. Matt is asking Tom to stretch his personal truth, to make an assertion that a thousand inquiry committees could never even definitively disprove: that he believes in Jesus. And we’re to understand that Tom, a Republican senator, and Lisa, his wife, aren’t comfortable with that leap. This would somehow, miraculously, be Baby’s First Lie. The immaculate deception.

Really? In a supposedly successful senatorial career, Tom’s never welched on a campaign promise, taken a dodgy donation, or disavowed an inconvenient memory? Jesus. In a play that otherwise makes a show of realism, it’s nothing short of absurd to take this plot point (ahem) on faith. The God Game‘s scout’s-honor senator reminds me of The Man Who Could See Through Time‘s posthumous Nobel Prize: a pivotal construct in a supposedly realistic contemporary story, that just doesn’t exist in real life. In these instances, the question becomes, is the playwright uninformed … or does she just assume that we are?

Regardless, a reasonable discussion between even-tempered people who respectfully disagree on a few key points, with fewer emotional flare-ups than your average televised vice-presidential debate, barely has a place on the political stage, let alone the theatrical one. If nobody’s point is razor-sharp, and nobody’s fate is truly at stake, what’s to keep us on the edge of our seats?

But did I mention that the actors are charming? Leif Norby as Tom and Laura Faye Smith as Lisa have great chemistry; they’ve partnered onstage at least as far back as The Scene (Portland Playhouse, 2011), and come across like nice, intelligent people who like each other. Kelsey Tyler as Matt has great presence, too. And maybe that’s the ultimate comment on politics: you don’t have to give honest answers or make great plays, you just have to make people like you.


FG review: No Pixie Dream Girls in ‘International Falls’

Thomas Ward's new play starts as a comedy then gradually deepens into something much darker

Isaac Lamb and Laura Faye Smith star in "International Falls" at CoHo

Isaac Lamb and Laura Faye Smith star in “International Falls” at CoHo


If Thomas Ward’s “International Falls,” a CoHo production receiving its world premiere, was was just a play about a one night stand, it would be a pretty good play, but it isn’t. It’s more than that:  The hook-up between a traveling stand-up comedian and his small town groupie is a platform to explore humor, adultery, faith and family. The result is a tragically funny (or funnily tragic) study on the connection between pain and comedy.

Tim (Isaac Lamb) is a comedian celebrating the final night of his Midwest tour in style with Dee (Laura Faye Smith), a receptionist at the Holiday Inn in desolate International Falls, Minnesota, where Tim is both gigging and sleeping. After opening with a cringe worthy second-base encounter, and an “I’m sorry…what’s your name?” moment, Dee and Tim get to talking.  That conversation, fueled by their physical closeness, reveals two very funny interesting people.

6727812097_c97a2f222eAmid their their riffing off each other, pinging jokes back and forth, something deeper starts to emerge. We learn that Tim is irrecoverably separated from his wife (and son) and Dee has been stewing for the past three days after discovering evidence of her husband’s infidelity. Both are looking at drastic changes in their lives as they have known them for the past 15 years. Ward’s dialogue (he’s a former stand-up comic himself and now is an actor/playwright in Minnapolis) is natural, and Lamb and Smith, directed by Brandon Woolley, play it with impeccable timing, zinging punch lines and pithy breaks of silence.

Isaac Lamb is simply fantastic, rattling off Tim’s stand-up monologues like a natural, but also digging deep into his hopelessness. Lamb builds layer upon layer into this character, a calloused skin of swaggering jokes covering a tender spot for his son’s dinosaur pajamas, and we’re left wondering about his fate until the very last moment.

Of course, Laura Faye Smith’s Dee adds a lot to this. In any other comedy Dee would swoop in all Manic Pixie Dream Girl[1] and save Tim from his terminal malaise, but she is refreshingly complex, and, this isn’t necessarily a comedy. Telling jokes about porn cockily, but incredibly shy when she undresses for the first time (surprisingly, even though the play opens with a sexual encounter, this doesn’t happen until about halfway through the play…thus the mysterious “clothed female, naked male” quote from Arts Watch’s Fertile Ground preview), she constantly asks Tim if he wants her to leave.   Smith creates a fully realized woman, who is a loving mother and an adulteress, a good Lutheran, a small town girl, and a pretty darn good comedian.

So stigmatized and romanticized in American culture, depression and its sometimes  tragic results are incredibly difficult things to write about, and almost impossible to do well onstage. Thomas Ward’s format is perfectly balanced between gut wrenchingly sad and funny, and Brandon Woolley direction is dynamic, but measured.

“International Falls” is just one of CoHo Theater’s offerings to the Fertile Ground Festival. It runs through February 16, 2013; Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm, Sun at 2.


[1]  This phrase was coined by writer Nathan Rabin: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” This phrase was originally used to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film Elizabethtown, but can be used to describe an unsettling percentage of female characters on the stage and screen.

Here’s a trailer for the show.

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