I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan
The year 1981 was a big one for Ronald Reagan. In the span of those twelve months he became president, became the first president to survive an assassination attempt while in office, and the first to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court.
But if you attend John S. Anastasi’s new meditation on boomer angst, "I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan," it would seem that all the Gipper managed to pull off in ’81 was the mass firing of over 11,000 air traffic controllers who were engaged in what all sides pretty much acknowledged was an illegal strike.
To be fair, this was a big deal. Reagan’s decision is often cited as ground zero for the later decline of unionized labor in America. And as he had backed (and been backed by) the controllers during his campaign, the termination and subsequent blacklisting of the striking workers from federal jobs are also seen as a massive betrayal.
Still, Reagan’s determined stance, only months after taking a bullet, resulted in a popularity that rarely wavered during his tenure, for better or worse. It also put Soviet leaders on notice, and they were surely watching to see how the septuagenarian would fare in this test of wills.
In one semi-Machiavellian swoop, Reagan would go from Benedict Arnold to King Arthur, kind of epic stuff.
Sadly, Anastasi’s play is no match for the actual drama that inspired it, and the weak material capsizes in a tempest of ham-fistery.
In case we should forget that the characters were once air traffic controllers, Anastasi makes sure they remind us incessantly, even though most of the play is set in 2004 (the action, for lack of a more accurate word, is sparked by news of Reagan’s death).
The production even starts off with an ill-advised opening scene that flashes the characters back to the catalyzing event. Not only is it dead weight, since projected news reports continuously keep us abreast of events, it also serves as proof that it’s far easier to make people appear older than to make them look young again. Unconvincing wigs and brow-cocking lines about having babies put the cast in an awkward scenario that makes a burlesque of their dignity. We wonder if the whole play is going to look like this and if so, when do we get to hit the gong?
Twenty-three years later, we see that Reagan’s decision has caused a rift between a particular man and everyone he knows. Played with admirable commitment by PJ Benjamin, the character Ray should nonetheless be committed. He has yet to find a stable second career, perpetually injures himself and never socializes.
But that’s not the worst thing about Ray. He has a long-standing habit of watching Jodie Foster movies and of disappearing into the attic. This isn’t so much foreshadowing as it is casting a full-blown eclipse over the entire production. Ray isn’t pulling a John Hinckley up there, but the truth of what he’s doing renders the horrified surprise of his family, decades in the making, almost as implausible as its pat resolution.
And in fact, implausibility is what "I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan" is really glued together with. Moreover, it leaves the heavy lifting to characters who are either unsympathetic or outright demented.
In assessing Patricia Richardson’s work as wife Jane, I was going to try and avoid mentioning the sitcom "Home Improvement," her most famous gig. No one deserves to have that branded on the tombstone. But this play continues her presumable career path of being a talented actress in schlocky material.
This obviously includes playing spouse to unnerving louts who should have awakened to Dear John letters long ago. Richardson can’t be doing this for the money, and the credit won’t really propel her anywhere. Next time she wants to perform live, she should choose a more challenging project and surprise herself.
The part of Buzz, the estranged best friend who went from labor union scab to millionaire next door, is actually the most compelling character, in concept. But as personified by Robert Emmet Lunney, he makes no sense. The actor seems to have trouble navigating the role’s emotional non-sequiturs, as anyone would, and forces his way through it with an overly muscular performance. This manifests itself as a voice that quivers in mid-sentence and unnatural postures that rival third-rate kabuki.
The daughter Tess, an aspiring actress who never gets work, could not be more shallow if the production secured a cup of water to play the role. This is more Anastasi’s fault than it is Danielle Faitelson’s, but the latter doesn’t look for, let alone create, any nuance that would make the character a welcome presence. Though nearly thirty, Tess comes off as a spoiled teenager indulged by her parents.
Regardless of one’s feelings about Ronald Reagan and his legacy, this crowd makes it tough to blame him for much. Despite the hackneyed jokes about his having co-starred with a monkey, which this show recycles, voters who see the play will be assured of only one thing:
Bonzo had a better agent.
"I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan," runs until August 25 at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street in Manhattan. For tickets and info call 212-239-6200, or visit www.forgivereaganplay.com.