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A CurtainUp Review
The President and Her Mistress

A press release for Jan Buttram's The President and Her Mistress calls this science-fiction influenced play a "far out comedy." Unfortunately, the comedy part generally is much too far out to locate. The director seems to have forgotten that a central object of a comedy is to amuse people, and that frequent laughter is welcome on such occasions.

Ms. Buttram's script does seem to have some appropriate ingredients. Her wildly imaginative futuristic creation is a valid extension of the premise that Aristophanes mined millennia ago in the first female-dominated comedy, Lysistrada. And when the audience enters the comfortable and intimate June Havoc Theatre, all seems as it should be. The wild dominance of soft pink in the scenery appropriately registers as silly, and, continuing this diverting tone, the routine announcements on the public address system are playfully rendered by a baby-like voice.

The play itself, set 150 years into the future, begins with a video projection of the central character, President Rebecca Shine, a self-described "simple country singer" who, we are told, already has been leader of a united world for twenty years, and currently is campaigning to return freedom to men, a radical idea in her world. We soon learn that her proposal is soundly defeated, receiving only eight votes out of billions cast. This is a world in which men nearly have been eliminated, and most of those few males around are either imprisoned or in servile circumstances. The most recallable statistic that is offered suggests 10 billion women on the planet to only 50,000 men. This video is presented in a somewhat ironic manner, with President Shine registering as a futuristic variation on Hillary Rodman Clinton.

Unfortunately, once the brief talking head video is over, irony disappears forever, the play sinks, and little else funny surfaces again. The rather complicated plot is perhaps a significant factor in this unfortunate situation, and it includes Madame President's ever-present and eternally youthful mother Peggy, effectively played by Sherry Skinker with appropriate comic suggestions that bring to mind veteran actress Cloris Leachman. Her unforgettable hairstyle, a variant on the historic beehive, here at its peak approximates a giant spool of thread.

Paul, the "faux" husband, most important to the president and the society as a sperm donor, now functions as her administration's surgeon general. When he shows up in the president's bedroom for the first time in five years, Rebecca's lesbian lover and Vice President, Kit Santos, accustomed to exclusive carnal access to the president, not surprisingly has jealous outbursts. Elsewhere Paul becomes involved in his own brand of rebellion, campaigning for equal rights of men. Yet this behavior belies the utterly folksy and relaxed stamp put on the role by actor Danton Stone. Candy Powers, a media queen suggestive of an Oprah Winfrey gone mad, regularly stirs the plot from her global media perch by mostly putting down her international call-in viewers. Candy views men as annoying but possibly desirable pythons, and as played by Constance Boardman, comes across as a self-centered dominatrix with a posh British accent. Act two uses significant background music, with noisy rather than significant rock and roll inexplicably supplanting the expected country western flavoring. The plot gets even messier, with references both to bands of insurgents in Australia and to the continuing limited rebellion of first husband Paul. Some faux sex scenes, which could have been very funny, unfortunately are presented as approximately literal and realistic and do not produce humor at all. Worse, the writing tone goes nasty in this act with a barrage of foul words that many in the audience are uncomfortable with. Again the question of tone seems to have failed to register on this script. A language style suitable for a gritty drama aimed at a mature and pensive group is not usually suitable for a light farcical comedy that might appeal to family audiences. What easily could be a very funny play for most of the family instead has become an often meaningless and sometimes offensive dramatic screed.

Thus filled with the play's inconsistent tone and heavy plotting involving both domestic and international politics, my companion, upon exiting, understandably was moved to utter, "I have no idea what that was about."

Director Rob Urbinati may have had his hands tied in some respects, and one wonders if casting the playwright-producer as leading lady was his idea or a fait accompli imposed upon him. Whatever may be the case, this vanity casting does not even begin to work. A key to this failure is the lack of chemistry between the two women of the title; worse, both their performances are decidedly bland.

As lead performer, the author amazingly has no interpretive stamp on President Rebecca Shine. This character in at least several scenes is crying out to sing in her absent country-western diva persona. In dream casting, the likes of Reba McIntyre, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, or Bette Midler would give this role the personality it demands. For a small theater like this one, any mature performer with personality would be an immense improvement to playing the woman as a mostly sexless naïf, and would gain enormous comic potential. In fact, the addition of a number of songs would go a long way towards giving the script a workable style. The one song Rebecca does sing at show's end unfortunately is wasted, as much lacking a winning performing style as does the role in general.

As to the other title role, the mistress also known as the vice president, this character is sorely underdeveloped and one-dimensional. The "mistress" needs to be appealing to the audience on some level, but in the hands of Susanna Guzman, she consistently comes across as mostly anti-social and often as strongly abrasive as well.

Strong direction could make a big difference here. When the often clever script gets lost in its messy plotting (it often does), the lack of either irony or varied pacing in the staging proves to be fatal to the material. Lines that could bring laughs repeatedly fail to work. The only approach to a directorial style that is in evidence seems to have been "loud" or "louder." On the plus side, the physical production is impressive, especially well supported by clever and versatile sets designed by James F. Wolk.


The President and Her Mistress
Written by Jan Buttram
Directed by Rob Urbinati
Cast: Jeremy Beck, Constance Boardman, Jan Buttram, Lori Garden, Susanna Guzman, Sherry Skinker, and Danton Stone,
Set Design: James F. Wolk
Lighting Design: Matthew McCarthy
Costume Design: Polly J. Byers
From 4/13/07 to 5/13/07; opening 4/25/07
Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m., and Sunday at 3:00 p.m.
Running time: 2 hours including intermission.
Abingdon Theatre Company at the June Havoc Theatre, 312 West 36th Street. 212-868-4444
Reviewed by Brad Bradley at the Sunday, April 22nd preview
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