Thursday, February 24, 2005

Does he have your vote/sympathy?

"McReele," a new play that opened tonight at the Laura Pels Theatre, is so full of political ideas that I found myself pulling back from the action several times and having uncomfortable flashbacks to the last election: Not necessarily because of the themes (no heavy mentions of "terrorists" or "Iraq"), but instead, in the hopeful, I'm-gonna-make-a-difference rhetoric that flows from the mouth of the protagonist as well as his supporters.

Politically themed plays usually focus on capturing one ongoing debate (the death penalty, say) or otherwise depicting a historical moment with all its inherent issues. This one instead attempts to give us a realistic view (long-winded TV-debate answers included) of a plausible and charismatic candidate who makes people forget he's really a politician.

Anthony Mackie ("The Manchurian Candidate," "Million Dollar Baby") plays a well-spoken and wily death-row inmate with big ideas and lots of free time to mull them. He becomes exonerated after a local journalist (Michael O'Keefe, who played an enjoyably lost character in "Reckless" this season) starts to champion McReele's cause. That cause encompasses both his supposed innocence and his plans for how to prevent black teenagers like himself from getting onto death row in the first place. The reporter later becomes his campaign manager as McReele begins a run for U.S. senator from the oft-maligned/forgotten state of Delaware.

We don't learn whether he wins -- or how much of a role he actually played in the murder that sent him away. But midway through the play, he admits to O'Keefe's character that he was closer to the fatal moment than he first let on. Then more doubts arise.

Much is made of the way McReele can win people over -- whether his wife or the journalist's girlfriend -- and this talent becomes the crux of the climactic scene. I won't give it away, but we're made to draw conclusions from the reactions of the father of the murdered boy without really knowing the truth about McReele, whose name plays on mixed racial expectations as well as his authenticity.

Despite a strong ending, the drama was weighed down by all the political specifics. I wish more of the speechifying had occurred off-stage, so that it would have felt less like a fictional campaign ad and more like an examination of the complexities of the characters.

No comments: