In 1995 Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people and injured over 500 more with a truck bomb in the deadliest act of homegrown terrorism ever committed in the United States. A veteran of the first Gulf War, McVeigh had been a survivalist, a "gun nut," and a conspiracy theory believer, but had no previous criminal record. Yet, outraged by what he considered to be tyrannical acts by the US Government, notably the killing of members of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, TX two years earlier, McVeigh, assisted by just one co-conspirator, took revenge by blowing up a federal office building in Oklahoma City, killing, among many others, a number of children from an onsite daycare center.
McVeigh never expressed remorse or fully explained his motivations. But he did pique the interest of writer Gore Vidal, who believed McVeigh should be taken seriously and not dismissed as a crackpot. Impressed by Vidal's articles about him, McVeigh wrote to the writer, and a correspondence ensued.
The letters haven't been published, and the two never met. But what if they had? What if Vidal had visited and interviewed McVeigh on death row, Truman Capote style? This is the conceit of Edmund White's play Terre Haute, currently receiving its New York premiere at the 59E59 Theaters.
The writer, here named James and loosely based on Vidal and on Mr. White himself, is a Europe-dwelling American septuagenarian who is granted a series of short interviews with the condemned man days before his execution. Playing James is the marvelous Peter Eyre, reprising his London performance. The play would be worth seeing just for Eyre's masterful portrayal of the witty, mordant writer coming rapidly to terms with his own mortality. Simultaneously cool and raw, he walks anxiously about the prisoner's screened-in cage, approaching, backing up, sitting, standing, making literal the journalist's search for an "angle" as he tries to coax the bomber – here named Harrison, and played with explosive rigor by the excellent Nick Westrate – to come clean about how the bombing really went down.
It's a rather fanciful presentation, really. In just 80 tense and occasionally funny minutes the two men, one in a drab gray business suit and the other in an orange prison jumpsuit, go through a week's worth of gamesmanship and emotional openings and closings. Some of the dialogue, especially some of the lines given to Harrison, feel contrived and out-of-character, bookish. Nevertheless, a gripping story emerges. If Harrison is a little unbelievable, James, both horrified and turned on by the bomber, worms his clever, hyper-literate, slightly pathetic way into our hearts wisecrack by wisecrack.
As the two characters clash, revealing themselves in all their hurt, some fundamental similarities assert themselves, unexpected alignments between the stooped, fey, oversexed literary gadfly and the ramrod-backed, under-educated, virginal military man. Harrison had been pushed over the edge when his demons of injustice became too personal. Now he helps push James over an edge as well – though James, unlike the terrorist, will live to bear witness to his own fall.
The dark-Americana musical score by Heather Fenoughty heightens the play's "weird America" atmosphere at critical moments. But White's script is sharp and brainy, and one must approach the play with the patience to focus on just two people in just one featureless space. (The set consists merely of Harrison's cage, a few chairs, and some strewn paper.) Through his creations, inspired by real people but informed by a lifetime of intense observation of the human species, White succeeds in pulling the intellectual and emotional threads together. His tale of two men with hearts as big (for better or worse) as cities ultimately stirs the soul.
Terre Haute continues through Feb. 13 at the 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59 St., Manhattan.