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A CurtainUp Review Spin

by Kathryn Osenlund

The making of theater is a passion for Spin's director, Blanca Zizka, who with her husband started with the Wilma Project in 1979. The Zizkas are long-time artistic directors of "the Wilma." Once located in an old converted warehouse on a small street, the Wilma is now a stunning theater on the Avenue of the Arts. Always a theatrical force to be reckoned with, the Wilma, along with several other vibrant theaters and theatre companies, provides diversity and energy to the Philadelphia theater scene.

Before the start of the play, the chairman of the board of directors opened the 21st season of the Wilma Theater with a reading of its mission and goals. Unusual, but this is the Wilma. One goal is about offering productions that are directly or indirectly related to issues of contemporary life. This goal forms a bridge to Spin which , along with three other works by playwright Robert William Sherwood, premiered at the White Bear Theatre, a London Fringe theater.

The action takes place in the present. We are thrust right into the story with no set-up time. Then the story is back-filled and it keeps leaking. Henry (Steve Brady) is running for president. This is a personal story wrapped in a political package and it is dominated by Jerry (Adam Grupper), the campaign manager. With his assistant Elizabeth (Jennifer Childs), he insists that the candidate avoid issues at all cost. "We have talk shows for that," and becomes distressed when he hears evidence of the candidate thinking. "Since when has Harry started to think?" They want him to "speak by remote control."

Mary (Janis Dardaris), the campaign manager for the opposition, descends on the play in her two scenes like the bad fairy in Sleeping Beauty or like an avenging angel. The play turns on a couple of things. The first is that Mary claims to have a hot, damaging piece of political dynamite that is going to sink Jerry's candidate. The second, and I don't want to say too much, involves fallout. The senator, Henry, an up-standing man who favors values, truth and loyalty over spin, is a patsy who allows himself to be micro-managed by Jerry, his incorrigible campaign director and Elizabeth, the numbers-person assistant. He is a wimp who sits there and doesn't defend his own wife when she is under attack by Jerry. Or so it seems.

The rambunctious, graphic Jerry and his assistant want Henry to serve up something vague and acceptable to the press at an imminent televised debate. They want to protect their candidate from attack, not just from the opposition, but from the press.

Spin doctor angles abound: "They like this guy- don't know what he's saying, which is good." And "You should never answer a question directly," and "This is not about position, it's about PERCEPTION." For example on abortion they have no position, "We are for it and we are against it." Jerry has worked out a taxonomy. Politics get the highest classification; much lower are things like marriage and children. He sees all decisions in terms of the campaign.

Henry, who barely speaks for most of the play, does get to ask this satire's central question: "Why does everyone needs to know everyone's private business?" He is never snide, never hip, never ironic. Apparently far removed from the spin process, he appears to have no show biz-- proof of an effective campaign manager. Truth is his weapon, Henry says later as he evolves.

The candidate's wife, Alexandra (Barbara Gulan), we discover right away, may have a questionable background. We watch as she constructs her past as she goes along. The wife of a candidate with 'substance,' she has no substance. The issue when we learn it, doesn't add up enough politically to justify all the hoopla, but from a personal point of view, the ramifications are far more damaging.

The set is composed of a cube-like suite, viewed from the Y-axis. It floats a foot or so above the stage, surrounded by a myriad of small cubes turned on end, which extend into the distance. It is as if the campaign spin battles are fought and everything transpires in a cube that is larger but somehow comparable to the small ones distributed around the stage. The room in the large cube is dull, grim, messy and extremely understated in gray-green, brown and tan. Little of the paraphernalia in it actually gets used. The stuff remains set dressing.

Very on-edge, nervy acting marks the first quarter of the play. Not only the actor playing the Jerry character, who is hopped up on caffeine, but also the other actors need to breathe. As they settle in and assume their attitudes, the acting becomes less artificial, but it is still reminiscent of the broad acting of a too too clever TV sitcom (that can't be aired on broadcast TV due to the language). This is not to take away from the virtuoso performance of Grupper, however. He wrings every last gram of meaning out of his lines.

There are a few problems, among them the fact that Jerry's wife, for unknown reasons, shows up between act one and act two, but we never see her or hear what happened or the point of it. The play, remarkably, observes the old, forgotten, neoclassic 'unities,' but there are references to Mary's return 'in an hour,' even after maybe more than half of that hour is gone. Sherwood has a talent for writing swear-talk, and it's feisty, but very very talky.

Taped political guitar music plays between acts, but the music of the play is the sound of ringing phones. The desk phone just rings. The characters use cell phones for 'actual' calls. Jerry says he doesn't want a secretary to answer his desk phone so he can have the personal touch, but he doesn't answer. It just keeps ringing.

Without giving too much away, I can say that any spectacle is saved for the end. While it is effective with strong aural and visual appeal, it is awfully brief. It would have been nice to see some of it throughout, underlying the production, even if the ending would sacrifice a small dash of its reverb.

SPIN By Robert William Sherwood
Directed by Blanca Zizka
Cast: Adam Grupper, Janis Dardaris, Jennifer Childs, Steve Brady, Barbara Gulan
Set Design: James Kronzer
Lighting Design: John Stephen Hoey
Costume Design: Janus Stefanowicz
Sound Design: Elaine Tague
Video: Tobin Rothlein
Running time: just over 2 hours with one intermission
9/20/2000-10/22/2000; opening 9/27/2000

Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 9/27 performance

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