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With Congressional approval ratings at an all-time low, Asolo Repertory’s production of the behind-the-scenes machinations of government in Both Your Houses, which premiered in 1933, is deeply resonant with today’s audiences.
Newly elected representative Alan McClean, played with wide-eyed enthusiasm and earnestness by Tom Colner, comes to Washington, D.C. hoping to find relief for his constituents most of whom have lost everything they have in the depths of the Depression in the Hoover era.
McClean believes he can clean up Washington through research, hard work, and determination. He even looks into his own campaign only to find that his biggest supporters stand to gain from a dam being considered in his district. He gets appointed to the Appropriations Committee, because the other Representatives assume his will be an easy vote in support of the dam. In the meantime, they have attached pork galore to support their own pet projects, in many cases to line their own pockets.
McClean realizes the bill is not kosher and votes against it wholesale, despite the fact that it would greatly benefit his home district. He immediately butts heads with the well-regarded head of the appropriations committee, Simeon Gray, played skillfully as always by Asolo regular David Breitbarth, who has his own secret reasons for wanting to push the bill through. Eccentric and charismatic Solomon Fitzmaurice uses his charm to convince McClean to join him on the dark side. Douglas Cherry, another stalwart member of the Asolo Rep, helps us see simultaneously the man Fitzmaurice once was, who came to Washington to do good, and the hard-edged man he has become, who has lost sight of his moral compass long ago.
The three women in the cast proved the most interesting part of the production for me. Carolyn Michel is wonderful as the only female representative, who is fighting for the poor and who believes that women need birth control to stop having babies they cannot afford with their randy unemployed husbands. I found her arguments compelling and a very interesting time capsule into the lives of women far before the Griswold v. Connecticut case of the 60s that finally legalized birth control for married women.
Gracie Lee Brown fully embraces her character Bus Nillson, a woman who proves that the one taking the notes should be the one running the meeting. Also intriguing is Katie Cunningham, Representative Gray’s daughter, Marjorie, who has caught the eye of McClean but who is fiercely loyal to her father, for whom she works. When McClean threatens the carefully constructed image her father has portrayed to the country and most importantly to his adoring daughter, he loses his chance with Marjorie and sacrifices the power he had begun to generate with Bus’s help.
Although we are supposed to root for McClean, with the privilege of hindsight, it seemed to me that the legislators might do well to listen to the wise words of Dolly Levi, from the Asolo’s other current production The Matchmaker, money “is not worth a thing unless it's spread around encouraging young things to grow.” As I said in my last review, if this clever woman were alive today, surely she would favor a stimulus package and tax cuts for the middle class over trickle down economics.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether McClean’s desire to cut spending was really needed by a hurting country where unemployment was through the roof. Shortly after this moment in history, FDR came in with his sweeping New Deal and got money flowing to at least some of the places it was needed.
Still, Both Your Houses has some important things to say about conflicts of interest and questions of ethics that we could all stand to learn. It shows that graft and corruption are omnipresent in politics, but we need organizations like my old office, the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board to serve as a watchdog for government.
Also notable in the production were the costumes and set, both of which give an air of class and style to backroom politics.
Check out Both Your Houses at Asolo Repertory Theatre. Tickets are available at http://asolorep.org/.