Good Morning, Baghdad
Watching Deborah Zoe Laufer's biting satire The Gulf of Westchester at Florida Stage is something akin to witnessing a hotshot skier hurtling down an icy slope. Laufer's topical tale of suburbanites caught up in divisive political debate over the war in Iraq hurtles along with such passion and intensity, it's breathtaking. Laufer doesn't get the gold at the finish line -- she cartwheels out of control well before that -- but her reckless bravado, aided by flawless staging from director Louis Tyrrell, makes for the kind of agitprop, bare-knuckle theater that rarely makes an appearance on contemporary stages.
While most playwrights in America continue to hide under their beds, Laufer has chosen to take on the biggest issue of our era, the fate of America after 9/11. The Gulf of Westchester is set in that leafy, serene titular suburbia just north of New York City. There, friends gather for a series of weekend television parties in the home of a well-off, conservative couple. Roger is a Gulf War vet, a backslapping ad executive and sports addict who's gung-ho about the campaign to go after al Qaeda and Iraq as well. Wife Vicki, blond, svelte, and tightly coiled, would rather guzzle white wine spritzers than talk politics. But another old friend, Dennis, is dating a newcomer from Manhattan, Joan, whose fiercely liberal politics immediately clash with Roger and Vicki's pro-Bush boosterism. Caught in the middle of this ideological gulf is Vicki's pal Phoebe, a lonely nebbish who is plagued with a growing if inarticulate sense of dread as the buildup to the Iraq war blazes endlessly on two huge, flat-screen televisions.
Westchester jumps time from the events just after 9/11 through the invasion of Iraq in a series of broadly satiric episodes. During the anthrax scare, the mail carrier comes into the house wearing a facemask and rubber gloves to deliver the letters, while deliverymen constantly arrive with bottled water, plastic sheeting, and duct tape. Vicki has an American flag embroidered by hand for the flagpole while Roger, decked out in an endless parade of N.Y. sports team shirts, gleefully cheers on the televised buildup to the war as if he's rooting for the Yankees. When the French balk at joining the "coalition of the willing," Roger buys cases of Chateau Lafitte and Evian so he can dump them out. Ever the clever ad man, he devises a way to pay for the war by selling logo rights for GI uniforms to major corporations.
Meanwhile Phoebe gets queasy about Vicki's increasing reliance on antidepressants to remain unflaggingly cheery. Worse, Vicki's tolerance for debate calcifies: "You're either with us or against us," she warns. "There are only two kinds of people: people who love our country or don't. If you don't love our country, you're evil."
Laufer uses current events to make her satiric points. But midway through, the play makes a major shift in style and tone. When Sam, Roger's long-lost pal and Phoebe's onetime swain, reappears, what began as a slash-and-burn piece of antiwar propaganda turns into a more conventional melodrama. Sam is thoroughly debilitated from Gulf War syndrome, gasping and wheezing from what has been officially diagnosed as "stress."
Out of work, homeless, and struggling to support a child with birth defects, Sam asks his pals for help. Roger and Vicki recoil in a flurry of excuses. Here's where Westchester starts to self-destruct. Roger and Vicki and their conservative viewpoints aren't given much dimension or credibility -- these characters are merely political piñatas for Laufer to thwack. But the "good" characters -- Joan, Phoebe, and Dennis -- aren't given much depth either. This works at the outset, when the play is ideological, but when the story turns toward emotional realism, Laufer asks the audience for empathy. In her zeal to nail pro-war conservatives as having abandoned both Gulf War vets and democratic principles, Laufer has already sacrificed her characters to her political agenda.
Tyrrell's inspired staging is far more intriguing than the script, a semiotic examination of a society so in the thrall of television that it acts as a ghostly character, floating seductively but ominously behind the live action. Richard Crowell's rich, wood-paneled living room set is dominated by those television monitors playing throughout the story. Most of the time, Tyrrell, aided by excellent video design from Robert Goodrich, plays an endless loop of huge American flags rippling in a gentle breeze. But to this Tyrrell adds frenetic blizzards of televised news reports, clips from Home Shopping Network, and other detritus from contemporary American culture. In the leaps of time between scenes, Tyrrell fast-forwards the video clips and the sound in a boggling whirl of imagery. Beyond the onstage televisions, Tyrrell uses smaller monitors scattered above the audience that sometimes offer ironic counterpoint to the dialogue -- the production opens with a brilliant MTV-like video of anti-American Arab protests accompanied by Randy Newman's bitter, funny "(They All Hate Us Anyhow) Let's Drop the Big One Now." Tyrrell's most striking use of video is the most subtle. The large picture window in this living room looks out onto the placid, leafy expanse of a classic American lawn -- but this vista is yet another video clip, suggesting a culture so cut off from the real world, even its view of nature comes from television.
The cast is superb. Kim Ostrenko, a fine comedian with a sly, subversive wit, is exceptionally effective as Vicki, the icy blonde whose upbeat cheer masks a conformity verging on panic. Stephen G. Anthony as her blockheaded spouse and Blair Sams as her awkward, sad-sack pal, Phoebe, also deliver particularly fine work.
The Gulf of Westchester isn't a thoughtful or insightful play, but its immediacy and raw, passionate voice make it exactly the kind of script that ought to be given a hearing (if there are any neocon playwrights out there, here's hoping they get their say as well). As events in Iraq lurch from one dismaying episode to the next, it is impossible to predict how this national drama will work itself out. It is likely, though, that this troubling, tumultuous era will be the subject of many a play for years to come.
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