It’s 1973 in Santiago, Chile. A young CIA agent fresh off a cushy assignment in New Zealand has been sent to “observe” the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende. Mark Wilding’s new play Our Man in Santiago takes a cockeyed look at this shameful coup, which brought to power Pinochet’s murderous regime. For much of its 100-minute length it’s an entertaining if curious romp. Yet while it lives up to its billing as a “comic spy thriller,” it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.
The story delineates two opposing points of view. The idealistic young agent, Daniel Baker (Nick McDow Musleh), believes in the good intentions and benevolent power of the good old U.S.A. As he puts it, things are black and white — “or at least a lot less grey” than his cynical, self-interested supervisor, Jack Wilson (George Tovar), sees it. To Jack, violent interference in another nation’s politics — with impunity — is just another day at the office.
But this is a spy thriller, so not everything is as it seems. Exhibit A is Maria (a delightful turn by Presciliana Esparolini), an obsequious hotel maid with an oddly inconsistent command of English. A bigger surprise comes near the end, with a violent turning of the tables. But by that time, strange turns in the storytelling style had befuddled me. The plot careens from witty comedy to cartoonish excess with the appearance — on the phone but cleverly staged as live action — of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Both are satirized (especially Kissinger) to the point of absurdity. In these scenes I veered dizzily from reluctant amusement to pure cringing.
A more traditionally stagey, somewhat Brechtian absurdist twist, also disconcerting, comes later.
Wilding is a longtime television writer with a long list of credits in both comedy and drama. His snappy dialogue and the performances of the three leads are what keep the show from succumbing to incipient chaos. It’s a talky play. I like talky plays. Musleh and Tovar are adept at this crackerjack sort of dialogue, the former especially focused and believable. You really root for Dan as he bumbles through the farce in which he finds himself, dropping bullets, hiding behind a couch, unspooling a toilet paper roll in search of bugs. His true self emerges in stages.
Even cocky Jack eventually reveals what has made him what he is. And Maria’s plight made me think of the countless Afghanis who helped the U.S. coalition during the Afghan war and now wait in vain for rescue. Plus ça change…
With all that, I came to expect a message, some kind of commentary on the U.S.’s Cold War history of violent international meddling in the name of countering Communism’s spread. But meaning-wise, the play ultimately goes limp. Yes, it’s a comedy, but one that sets us up for a thought-provoking angle. The most we can discern is a pat moral about the foolishness of American interventionist foreign policy. I wished there were more.
Our Man in Santiago is an enjoyable show sturdily staged and played. It’s at the Off-Broadway AMT Theater at 354 W. 45 St., NYC through Sept. 30, 2022. Tickets are available online.