Call it Washington Goes to Mr. Smith. Paul Slade Smith’s story of a shlubby but competent administrator who finds himself launched into the political limelight shares an outlook with Frank Capra’s classic film: basically, if you’re not cynical about American politics, you’re a rube and a dupe, but if you don’t believe in the promise of American politics anyway, you’re a shrivel-hearted crank. But where Capra went for drama, Smith and director Christopher Williams are after comedy — with a heart. The tone is set even before the play begins, as the standard pre-show announcements are delivered in the form of a political attack ad. “Other theaters want to steal your money, but here at Scripps Ranch Theatre…” It’s right on the nose, just like the interstitial songs: “Born in the USA,” “Ain’t That America,” “American Idiot,” etc. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, thanks in no small part to the energy, timing, and commitment of the cast. Even when you can see a situation coming, as in the case of the disastrous interview that closes Act One, the execution is good enough to keep the laughs coming.
You know you’re in Capra-land from the get-go as well: only there would a governor be forced to resign over a little thing like marital infidelity. His Lieutenant Ned Newley has just delivered five minutes of televised silence at what was supposed to be his swearing in — he’s better at policy than people, you see — and in so doing, has attracted the attention of D.C. super-consultant Arthur Vance (John Nutten, who here puts one in mind of an amped-up Ronald Reagan). Newley may be smart, but he comes across as dumb on TV, just dumb enough to be “real” — the political currency of the moment. (“Unqualified is the new qualified!”)
Vance is a great character: a slick huckster who lives for the campaign and believes in his work, even if he doesn’t believe in his candidates. He must contend with both the new gov’s idealistic Chief of Staff and his empty-headed Executive Assistant, but don’t you know it, he’s one of those every-crisis is an opportunity types. If satire bites like a meandog, this is more like its days as a rambunctious puppy, nippingand growling to great effect, but with no real harm done.
Ongoing until Sunday, October 9, 2022