‘Promising,’ written by Michelle Elliott and directed by Terry Berliner currently at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, has a political scenario that is all too plausible. Indeed, on a superficial level, it reminds one of a scandal New Yorkers confronted a while back when a politician’s “fat finger error” sent a compromising private photo public, causing a viral imbroglio. The resulting media cataclysm chopped up the congressman’s promising political career.
David (a really fine performance by Jake Robards upon which all the other performances turn), Michelle Elliott’s protagonist is not quite as dorky as the true-to-life “fat finger error” Congressman who dropped out of the public fray and politics. In this fascinating play, the stakes are much higher with a number of moral imperatives that run to the quick heart of humanity and decency. The complexity of circumstances is far greater and there is harmful fallout that must be surreptitiously covered up or confronted.
Elliott raises a number of questions that pertain to all political dealings if politics is about power dynamics between individuals. She also poses conundrums throughout her suspenseful play. When rationalizing choices while lost in a fog of ethical relativity, how far does one go? Should one consider only what’s best for oneself? Or must one also consider an action that is best for one’s family and one’s constituency? Should the truth be covered-up, if its revelation is damaging to family, serves no purpose but vengeance, and harms the implementation of social welfare programs for many?
David, who is running for city councilman, is a savvy “golden boy” who has politics in his blood and political efficacy in his bloodline. He is admirable and winning. The playwright infers his advocacy for the “have-nots” and the 99% of the city’s vulnerable. Thus, we imagine he supports the “kicked under the bus” New Yorkers, sacrificed by previous administrations who favored power brokers-wealthy developers, corporations and global businessmen. Unlike David, their last concern was to improve and enrich social programs, education, or provide extensive affordable housing for the middle class. David is an advocate for woman’s rights and indeed, he is a knight in shining armor, sensitive, progressive, enlightened to women’s issues about the right to choose, violence/sexual abuse, and gender parity. He is the perfect man, the perfect candidate.
The playwright has constructed David as a sterling individual. Yet, within his very privilege, there may lurk a fatal flaw which could send him free falling into the abyss. This precariousness is presented up front at the play’s outset when we immediately learn that his campaign manager and speech writer confer in David’s apartment to to stem the blood flow threatening to bleed out his shining image. A sexual allegation has been made against this wonder boy and his campaign may be in jeopardy because of it. David’s political opponents are seizing up like an overheated engine and social media is divining identities and thrumming interest and commentary about the female player making the allegation.
Verity (Jolie Curtsinger’s frenetic, impassioned, “his girl-Friday”campaign manager couldn’t be more perfect), is in a tail spin running interference. During the play’s exposition, she attempts to gain the edge with the media, divine whether the allegations have any merit based upon the identity of the woman, and persuade David to create an effective statement that will blow off the darkening storm clouds to maintain his lead in the polls. She also must convince him of the seriousness of the very “appearance” of evil in an association with sexual abuse allegations because of his prior activism supporting women’s issues.
While she stresses, all energy and vitality, David initially appears to be suavely confident and staid about the woman’s sexual abuse allegations. He blazes cleanly and always says “the right thing,” what others long to hear. Even with his friend Shed (Zarchary Clark) and Verity, he maintains a quiet reserve and apparent authenticity which has served him well as a rising, promising public figure. As Verity is drawn in, we, too, hope that the charges are not true. Deciphering the mystery of their truth or falsity the playwright leaves to Shed’s moral compass.
Shed (a modulated, evolving and spot-on revelatory performance by Zachary Clark), David’s friend, speechwriter and policy wonk confers with Verity and David about the best wording of a press statement, and a plan of action. During the course of the brisk and humorous banter, the trio spin the headier issues about how to confront and turn around the allegations of a twenty-year-old woman whose identity has been smeared all over social media. What are the ethics of vilifying a young woman’s reputation by digging up any and all dirt on her, the usual MO of political campaigners who “go for the jugular” like vampires at the kill? Shed is the moral barometer and David appears to agree that the young woman must be spared. Both agree above Verity’s protest that he must rely on his prior advocacy and spotless history. David assures that he will not engage in open warfare with one who is unprotected. It is obvious that the young woman is being manipulated roundly by the press who swarms in the lobby of David’s apartment building and later in the play, sends a drone with a camera to spy through the windows of his apartment.
The playwright sparks the action at a sharpening level of intensity. With every spin of this taut work, she elevates the conflicts and increases the momentum using ironic humor to stir our interest. There are Shed’s pointed questions about the young woman who David encountered in a bar, where Shed also saw her. There is also an Instagram picture which David doesn’t quite remember posing for. The woman’s veracity already is in question as she had a fake ID and was underage and in a bar compromising her position as an “innocent.”
Layers are added to the characterizations when David’s step-sister, Gemma (Kim Wong’s quirky, brilliant, Asian Goth adds spice and fun), comes into the battleground sneaking up to David’s apartment after thwarting the press vultures. The same age as the accuser, we do not miss the parallel irony of the twenty-year-olds who are both prone to youthful indiscretions. Gemma’s edgy presence pits her against Verity who initially is dismissive of her. Complications intensify among the characters after “dirt” is discovered and publicized about Louise Kane the twenty-year-old who accuses David. As the four characters discuss the plan of action and the potential fallout with every option they consider, conflicts deepen between Shed, David and Verity about who David really is and what he wants. Inevitably, this crisis will impact the others’ identities over the imperatives of the growing scandal.
When Verity receives a call from the detective who intends to question David about the allegations, she wonders if Kane produced evidence of the sexual abuse. David is measurably unflappable and still protective toward Louise Kane. His perfection never breaks. Gemma, in an ironic juncture foreshadows themes and later events, when she gives a run-down of the PTSD symptoms sexually abused women manifest during the journey out of violence to rehabilitation.
Will Louise Kane manifest such symptoms or will she be found out as an opportunist? Will Shed discover his idol David has clay feet or is David’s solid persona as fundamentally upright as he appears to be? Elliott adds colors to the dynamic and interchanges and hints at clues, but cleverly gives little away. As in life, all will come together in hindsight.
Then, the dominoes begin falling and true identities are revealed under the pressure of finally deciding what course of action to take. The characters reveal their underlying motives. Shed exposes his own morality to be part sham part puerile idealism when he sexually engages with Gemma. It is OK for him to thrust David in a high, inviolate pristine tower, yet he cannot, himself, abide by the same ideals.
Verity, has no compunctions using the compromising youthful indiscretions of Louise Kane (an abortion), to cleanse David of any allegations. She is willing to trash one of her own gender unnecessarily, redirect the blame onto Kane, and sacrifice her to protect David’s image and campaign. She envisions his lustrous future and hers as they move up the political career ladder side-by-side. It is clear she loves him and will do anything for him. However, her love is a two-edged sword. Her question why David cares so much about protecting Louise Kane’s reputation after they discover she had an abortion has far reaching ramifications as does his answer. How the dynamics between the characters and the crisis eventually are resolved leads to an ending which is surprising and fraught with personal agendas that are difficult to divine. Elliott’s conclusion is fascinating.
From beginning to end ‘Promising’ is a clever production with spot-on, tight direction by Terry Berliner and fine acting by the ensemble. The dramatic elements, lighting, set design, costumes are appropriately minimalistic and direct our focus on the the substantial themes of the play concerning morality, ethics, human decency and personal identity. Such concepts the playwright suggests are trampled, not only in the world of politics, but in all our lives. Manipulations by others because of their own personal agendas may lead us to perform actions which are self-nullifying, especially if our identities are not solidified. Elliott’s characterizations and scenario pose intricate problems that all of us can understand and empathize with. There are no easy, pat answers. For that reason and many others ‘Promising,’ an intricate, suspenseful, thoughtful play shouldn’t be missed.
By Michelle Elliott, directed by Terry Berliner
Produced by InProximity Theatre Company
At the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row
November 14 – Saturday, December 5