Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
If you are a news junkie who plans your vacation or sick days around the next televised congressional hearing, or sets your DVR to keep abreast of the political news of the day, Larry Gelbart’s Mastergate, A Play on Words is for you. Gelbart, you’ll recall, was the genius behind the smash movie and TV series M*A*S*H.
In Mastergate, written 30 years ago, he cooked up a scandal that presciently blended the worlds of entertainment and politics, while poking fun at the rhetorical gymnastics that have defined our politics for years. Since Mastergate was first produced in 1989, political discourse has devolved to the point where the line between satire and reality has blurred a bit, but there is enough absurdity here to generate some really great laughs and to evoke the summer of 1987 when Oliver North was a household name. I attended the dress rehearsal of a staged reading that opens tonight (Sept. 13).
The story revolves around a movie studio, Master Pictures International, and the C.I.A., complicit in a cover-up of arms sales to “certain South American countries.” Sound sort of familiar? When a televised congressional committee tries to get at the truth, it may just be that the fish rots from the head down.
What the staged reading, presented by Southern Tier Actors Read (S.T.A.R.), lacks in action, it makes up for in snappy, verbal interplay that will ring as true today as it did when it was written. And like any good congressional hearing, there is a fair bit of ping ponging between witnesses and their interlocutors, so get ready for some head swiveling.
While the play was written as a comedy, director Judy McMahon admits to a strong undercurrent of truth and seriousness that won’t spoil the jokes but may temper the audience’s ability to laugh as loudly as the script originally intended. “I hope people get it,” she told me. “They will,” I said.
S.T.A.R.’s cast is stellar, and the actors squeeze every richly ridiculous moment out of this one-act play. Their characters’ names alone are groan-inducing, but unforgettable (e.g., Jerry Schmidt as committee chairman Archer Bowman and Bill Gorman as chief counsel Shepherd Hunter).
Mickey Ray, Andrea Gregori, Mitch Tiffany, Barbara Vartanian and Carolyn Christy-Boyden are the committee members. Bob Weslar, Tony Villecco, Thomas Sbarra, John Montgomery and Sam Westover are the hilarious, although not always reliable, witnesses.
Rounding out the cast as the narrator and TV reporter Merry Chase is Mary Ann Johnson, who does her best to be heard over the din of congressmen and women. Bonnie DeForest and Gregori are the intrepid lawyers for the key witnesses.
Gregori takes on multiple roles, each comical and distinguishable from the others.My favorite of her roles is one Senator Byers, who reminded me of Kamala Harris interrogating William Barr at his recent AG confirmation hearings. Mickey Ray also does double duty as Representative Oral Proctor, who has served 30 terms in Congress (!!), and as Wylie Slaughter, whose final appearance is a surprise for reasons I am not at liberty to disclose here as they are classified. Well, not really, but I won’t spoil it.
Christy-Boyden as Senator Knight and Vartanian as Senator Sellers are both so confident in their interrogator roles that I felt sorry for the witnesses. Their stage business and facial expressions are priceless.
Gorman channels Bernie Sanders as Chief Counsel Hunter, with wild hair and hands in perpetual motion. As southern gentleman Senator Folsom Bunting, Tiffany is silent for a good part of the proceedings … until he isn’t. His contribution to the committee is worth waiting for and evokes Charles Durning in O Brother, Where Art Thou or even Lionel Barrymore’s Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, although, if you ask him, he might say Foghorn Leghorn.
Villecco as Hollywood insider Abel Lamb is a cross between Colonel Sanders and Jackie Rogers (an old Martin Short character from Second City), and I expected Montgomery’s Major Manley Battle to yell, “You can’t handle the truth!” a la Jack Nicholson.
Sbarra is, well, very like himself, but in the role of Secretary of State Courtleigh Bishop. Audience members may know Sbarra from his real estate show on TV but will enjoy seeing him act, too. Not bad at all! His is a believable and understated performance, which is refreshing in a show heavy on accents and characterizations.
Weslar has a lot of fun with his role as witness Stewart Butler, often deferring to his tough and no-nonsense lawyer (DeForest). DeForest also is the assistant director and stage manager for Mastergate, and, with this large a cast, she had her work cut out for her. Westover is smarmy enough as Vice President Burden, and he might just shake your hand if you are not too distracted to realize he’s about to pounce on you soliciting votes.
Chris Nickerson, a busy actor in his own right, designed the eye-catching poster for the show.
IF YOU GO: Mastergate staged readings will be at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday (Sept. 13 and 14) and at 3 p.m. Sunday (Sept. 15) at The Phelps Mansion, 191 Court St., Binghamton. Tickets are $15. Dertails: Call 722-4873.