Private Plays, Public Access

During the intermission of Private Lives, being staged by downtown Miami's Ramsay-Hutchison Players, a dance professor from the New World School of the Arts asked me if I review college theater. I said no and went on to explain that I am reluctant to write in-depth reviews of performances by students still honing their skills. He nodded, but I thought I detected a puzzled look in his eye. Later, during the second act, I understood his unspoken confusion -- the stumbling cast we were both watching boasted only one person who makes acting a career.

The mantle of professional used to be bestowed on an actor upon receipt of a union card from the national Actor's Equity Association, which prohibited the performer from appearing on-stage unless under contract. Today, with only a handful of local companies operating under the union's rules for nonprofit regional theaters, and with many of the established venues signing only the occasional Equity "guest artist" contract, you're more likely to find valid IDs at a college bar than union cards at most South Florida cast parties. As the lines between community, showcase, resident, and regional theaters continue to blur, it's getting harder to know where you'll find professional actors.

South Beach's EDGE/Theatre, which operates on a shoestring budget in a third-floor walkup on Miami Beach's Espanola Way, exists on the fringes of professional theater, and its current offering of company producer Jim Tommaney's play The Private Agenda places it more in the category of an educational playhouse. While the production provides an optimistic glimpse of EDGE's future, as shown by the growth of its fledgling actors -- whose frequent EDGE appearances are beginning to qualify them as a resident company -- and of the maturing of Tommaney's skills as a playwright, The Private Agenda still finds the evolving troupe in an unsteady present.

In its world premiere, The Private Agenda swirls in a kaleidoscope of fascinating images through approximately two dozen scenes that intrigue but never coalesce into a comprehensive whole. Using the Gulf War as a backdrop, Tommaney's drama plays a game of "what if," with the fictional occupants of the Oval Office orchestrating a military action to pump up the economy and raise their popularity in the polls (a theory, incidentally, that made the rounds in left-wing political circles during the actual Gulf War). Thinly based on George Bush, Tommaney's Republican president George Gorse (Chris Vicchiollo) also has a wife named Barbara and was once head of the CIA.

Sitting beneath framed images of Mount Rushmore and the Lincoln Memorial, the former head spook uses passwords to order assassinations as part of his top-secret plan to ensure his own place in history. His hopes for the future, however, spring from his experiences of the past, leading Gorse to embark on the Gulf War in eagerness to prove his strength and compensate for suppressed feelings of inadequacy he developed as an abused child.

Mindful that his scheme could lead to impeachment, he leaves the dirty work to his cutthroat chief of staff John (Michael W. Brooks, Jr.), a predatory yuppie who enjoys pulling the strings of power while knowing that his kinky sexual practices will preclude him from winning political office himself. The two recruit hard-bitten press secretary Carla Hernandez (Isabela Mendes) to sell their game plan to the media. A jaded cynic with a vodka-and-Valium past, she proves an able spin doctor, even though the machinations begin to sicken her. When her sound bites can't compete with televised images of bleeding American troops, the presidential staff scrambles to control the escalating military crisis.

Their efforts come too late to help Jane Martinez (Lisa Boggio) and her unemployed auto plant husband Bill (Emilio Plana), who have sent their only offspring, Steve (Carlos Rodriguez) and Joe (John Campagnoli), off to war. We learn of the family's struggles in soliloquies spoken directly to the audience that too often tell us rather than dramatically show us their anguish. To its credit, The Private Agenda hits home with emotional snapshots that can be found in anyone's family album: Steve and his Gulf War buddy Annie (Andria Angora) recall the first time each made love, as a prelude to getting intimate themselves; Bill reads a letter he sent to Steve confiding the military exploits that haunted the boy's grandfather; Bill and Jane torment themselves by wondering if their desire for grandchildren would make homosexual Joe's death more bearable than heterosexual Steve's.

In such moments The Private Agenda delivers a powerful human coda to the Gulf War, but the script's scattershot digressions on presidential neuroses, pleas for gay equality, and unexplained governmental conspiracies make getting a handle on the dramatic action no easier than grasping the underlying causes and political aftermath of the war itself. As the sprawling scenes unfold, director Philip Nolan coaxes satisfactory performances from his inexperienced cast, leading us through the play's winding story lines but never quite illuminating them. Brooks alone stands out, deftly depicting the manipulative chief of staff's power-hungry rationalizations by flipping out his cellular phone to order a CIA hit or a hooker with equal gusto.

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