Henry & Tom's Excellent Adventure

In the late Nineteenth Century, Thomas Edison created the first light bulb. In the early Twentieth Century, Henry Ford designed the first production-line automobile. Our plugged-in, revved-up contemporary world owes much to these quintessentially American geniuses, both of whom were as adept at marketing products as they were at inventing them. Yet it is hard to imagine these men recognizing the current frenetic society they helped shape. According to a jaunty and acerbic 1995 play by Mark St. Germain, however, Edison and Ford would have no trouble relating to modern-day politics. In that arena, our corrupt and cynical era closely resembles their own.

In Camping with Henry & Tom, on-stage at New Theatre in Coral Gables, St. Germain uses a real-life event involving the two inventors as a catalyst for political satire. Edison, Ford, and Pres. Warren G. Harding went camping together in the summer of 1921; in his play, St. Germain amplifies the trip through fictional details. Ford hustles Edison and Harding away from their official Secret Service- and press-infested campsite; when his car hits a deer and then plows into a tree, the men find themselves stranded for the night in the Maryland woods, without adequate supplies. Over a campfire, they reveal very different personalities. They spar, philosophize, and reminisce until the proceedings take a more self-serving turn. Ford has a political agenda that he presses upon Harding; Harding parries with his own goals. And Edison provides caustic commentary as ambitions and secrets are exposed.

Plays about politics can be deadly. Too often, a self-important playwright trots out a host of under-realized characters who serve as mouthpieces for his point of view. Historical plays can be just as lethal; writers tend to bloat the script with facts in lieu of dramatic action. St. Germain avoids both pitfalls in the well-written and intelligent Camping. He certainly has something to say about politics and history: Powerful men abuse their influence, unbridled business interests can gallop out of control, commerce and politics are often closely aligned, greed remains a crucial component of the American character. Yet he never bores us by pontificating in long-winded speeches or reciting matter-of-fact laundry lists. Instead, he allows keenly developed characters with ironic sensibilities to do his work.

Although the original version of Camping consists of two acts, New Theatre artistic director Rafael de Acha deleted material (involving the aforementioned unlucky deer, which takes place off-stage) in order to present the play as a single 100-minute act. An hour and a half plus is a trying length for a conversation-laden script, especially since de Acha's direction falters at times, skidding us into a few tedious patches. But finely tuned and engaging performances by a buoyant cast, including Bill Hindman (Edison), Peter Haig (Ford), Dick Robison (Harding), and G. Michael McKay (as the Secret Service man who finds the men) pull us through those rough spots.

As a cranky, world-weary Edison, Hindman delights in delivering the lion's share of the play's one-liners with acrid, deadpan glee. Perhaps because the character changes the least during the course of the evening, providing the threesome with stability ("Think of me as Switzerland," he quips when Ford appeals to him for support in an argument with Harding), Edison remains somewhat a mystery. But Hindman's astute portrayal of this fascinating man whets the appetite for more about the inventor. (Perhaps a sequel, Mr. St. Germain?)

Haig craftily portrays Ford at the outset as a hyperactive Boy Scout used to having his own way. As his confrontations with Harding pick up steam, however, the actor exposes the frighteningly autocratic, anti-Semitic, and anti-labor aspects of the man.

In Robison's hands, Harding isn't who we expect him to be either. At first the president is a good-natured ding-a-ling who offers his teetotaler companions nips from his private whiskey stash. (The play takes place during Prohibition.) He seems less cognizant of his abilities and less impressed with himself than are his camping buddies. By the end of this layered performance, though, Robison's Harding turns out to be cunning and self-aware.

Simple yet effective costume, set, and lighting designs lend subtle support. The threesome look amusingly incongruous in the woods wearing dapper Twenties-style suits, courtesy of Marta E. Lopez. They quibble together across Ingrid Angel's beautiful Zen-like set, which uses strips of white cloth stretched from floor to ceiling to simulate trees, and moss, small rocks, and twigs to evoke a forest floor. And Jeff Quinn's gentle lighting changes, including shadows projected on the white strips to suggest leaves, move the trio from late afternoon through evening to dawn.

In Camping the characters believe they are lost for part of the play, but the audience always knows exactly where and when the action occurs, down to the name of the town bordering the woods in Maryland (Licking Creek) and the date (July 24, 1921). Writing in a naturalistic style, St. Germain offers us a recognizable representation of external reality complete with easy-to-follow scripted conversation. None of this can be said about ENATOWAP, Marta Garcia and Nancy Gomez's darkly comic, feverish alternative to realistic theater debuting at the Next Stage in Miami. In an odd instance of synchronicity, however, the two pieces are connected; the frenzied, paranoid, postindustrial landscape of ENATOWAP could be interpreted as a nightmare denouement of the high-tech, information-overloaded world Henry and Tom's inventions ushered in.

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