A Clean, Close Shave

I thoroughly enjoyed Pegasus' Southwest premiere of Sound-Biting, not for original thoughts on the contemporary, poll-driven political process but because of enough verisimilitude to get a clean, close shave. Eric Coble's script, here under the direction of Pegasus founder and artistic director Kurt Kleinmann, climaxes with a debate between two candidates--both without principles, but one, utterly un-videogenic, snivels, while the other shoots venom with serpentine grace. As in the recent New York revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man, what they know about each other and how they attempt to place it under public scrutiny without being noticed in the act is a big source of the action. Decades later, mix in the rise of endless national polls. Whimsical opinions registered fast and frequently and based on unverifiable accusations guarantee superficial responses from the candidates. Vidal wrote his comedy before this happened and is much more concerned with the disparity between public and private character; Coble, a young playwright who's also an NPR commentator and an actor with a long list of regional credits, understands that they have become, essentially, the same thing, and wants to record every gory detail of the mad-media experiment that fused them.

Sound-Biting follows up a previous Coble script, Virtual Devotion, produced last year at Pegasus. Both share depictions of a futuristic America in which people communicate only via digital means--cell phone and computer--and paranoia is the national mood. Virtual Devotion wondered aloud what the return of Christ would mean to a ubiquitous electronic church where it isn't clear who we're supposed to worship: the man upstairs or the man on the TV screen. Less raucous, more honed in to the cogs and wheels of a national system, Sound-Biting succeeds most often when we're laughing because some absurd gesture or sentiment is just too damned true, such as when it discusses the farce of third-party candidates in a game dominated by what Ralph Nader refers to as "Republicrats"--the two-party behemoth whose differences have increasingly become moot. In Coble's script, Republican senatorial candidate Pat (Pat Watson) is locked in a close race with Democratic incumbent Jack (Ted Wold), so he enlists his ex-wife Kate (Dona Safran) to run so she'll split the liberal vote and tip the race to him. Actually, "enforces" is a better word; Kate is imprisoned, like Julie Christie in Demon Seed, inside her own computer-controlled house. Meanwhile, Pat's publicity machine generates vague but noble press "statements" from his ex-wife that cause her poll numbers to shoot up gradually. A pair of yammering, MSNBC-style pundits named Nick and Phil (Coy Covington and Dan Cunningham), pictured on video screens that flank the stage, are the ones who convince American voters that Kate is "above the process," "not an insider"--which is true enough, considering she has no control over her participation. Her "air of mystery," interpreted as high morals, gets spun until the housebound Kate is spinning with a desire for vengeance.

Sound-Biting feels very much like Kurt Vonnegut, even down to the lapses into clumsy and obvious humor: Pat invents a political lobby called "Pedophiles for the Dismemberment of Animals," has them contribute heavily to Jack's campaign, and then exposes the donations. But director Kleinmann has shepherded his talented cast to hit their comic cues--even the sillier stuff gallops along--and choreographs them well with the video broadcasts. Poll numbers flash before our eyes with pratfall timing whenever one candidate or the other does something stupid or salutary. Ted Wold goes for an overcaffeinated, sweaty, bug-eyed weasel of a performance, not terribly acute but inhabiting a stage scenario in which caricatures are not unwelcome. The truly frightening comic creation is Pat Watson's Pat, a Southern charmer who beams insincerity out of the video monitor like a hypnotic suggestion. Watson is so good, he exposes some of the weak stretches of Coble's writing, the times when the playwright isn't trying hard enough to stay on message and aims his bow at barn-size targets: You want him to keep picking those small, burr-like truths out of our collective national shoe, reminding us why this journey smarts every four years. I'm curious if Watson studied tapes of George Dubya for this performance, but half the similarity is physical coincidence--he also possesses small, deep-set, oft-blinking eyes. But Watson is a helluva lot better actor than Bush, in that he is more instantly appealing and more insidiously intelligent at hinting about his character's soullessness. When he makes a comment, he punctuates the benevolence of his myopic expression with a smile in which only one side of his mouth turns up--the goodwill, the concern, the noble intentions are half there. It's a small, perhaps even unconscious signal on Watson's part, but it speaks volumes about how satellite media have compelled us to read a candidate's face harder than his record.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers