Temporary Theatre Company

at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

William Mastrosimone seems to use drama as a way to ventilate his rage.

Extremities, for example, offers a delicious revenge fantasy: a young woman subdues her rapist and tortures him. In Nanawatai, Mastrosimone focuses on the rage aroused by war. The playwright spent several weeks in Afghanistan with Afghani rebels during the Soviet invasion. After witnessing the execution of a Russian tank crew, he wrote a play recounting the incident through the eyes of a rebel as well as the eyes of one of the crew members. Shivaree is about a perennial source of rage: a young man’s struggle to escape his overprotective mother.

And now the Temporary Theatre Company is staging Cat’s-Paw, which deals with no less than three causes of rage: industrial pollution, terrorism, and obnoxious TV reporters. That may sound like a feast, but Mastrosimone rigs the play so that it’s very difficult to get angry about all three at once. If you get really worked up about pollution, then the terrorists opposing it start to seem sympathetic. But if terrorism upsets you more, then the pollution doesn’t seem so bad.

And if the TV reporter is as irritating to you as she was to me, you may start rooting for the polluters and the terrorists simply to spite her.

Cat’s-Paw is about a band of terrorists who have kidnapped an EPA official and imprisoned him in an abandoned warehouse in Washington, D.C., threatening to kill him unless major newspapers give front-page space to their rambling diatribe against water pollution. All the newspapers have refused, but instead of killing their hostage, the terrorists pack a car with explosives and one of them drives it into a shopping center, killing 27 people and injuring hundreds, including many children.

With news of the bombing filling the airwaves, the terrorists invite Jessica Lyons, a popular TV reporter, to the warehouse to conduct an interview with Victor, the leader of the group.

Why Jessica? She’s not a major star, and her career seems to be languishing. But Victor says he has admired her “ever since that story where you waited all night behind a tree on the riverbank, when you flicked on your camera lights and caught that creep in that phony milk truck dumping sulphuric acid in the river.” Victor perceives Jessica as a friend of the environment and assumes that she will be sympathetic to him and his cause.

But while taping her lead-in, Jessica refers to Victor and his cohorts as “terrorists.” “You can’t say that,” he insists. His group is merely engaged in “proxy low-level guerrilla warfare.” And when Jessica reveals her disgust for the group’s “success” in detonating the car bomb, Victor begins to wonder if inviting her for the interview was such a good idea.

Jessica and Victor are little more than stick figures, but Mastrosimone gives each a persuasive point of view. Victor is justifiably upset about the government’s apparent indifference to water pollution: once when a corporation couldn’t meet water-pollution standards, the EPA official merely modified them for the corporation’s benefit. And although Jessica is an inept interviewer whose blatant efforts to flatter and cajole Victor demonstrate how manipulative journalists can be, she deserves credit for pursuing the interview at considerable risk to herself.

Both characters have an ugly side, vain and ambitious, and this leads them into a cat-and-mouse game with each other, a game that’s at the heart of the play. Unfortunately, however, the conflict is subverted by Carol-Ann Black’s weak performance as Jessica. Black fails to give her character the dynamic, ego-driven personality that her lines imply. The script indicates that Jessica is aggressive, intelligent, and perhaps a bit flamboyant, but Black portrays her as meek, bland, and vacuous–a woman with no apparent ego at all.

Vincent Raye, on the other hand, makes Victor a character to hate: arrogant, self-righteous, and hopelessly narcissistic–just the qualities that enable humans to commit heinous crimes in the name of justice.

Kim Swinton provides a strong performance in the small role of Cathy, the loyal soldier who brings Jessica to the warehouse; but Josh White III fails to give David Darling, the hapless hostage, the shifty intelligence the character requires.

As in his other plays, Mastrosimone is trying to initiate an orgy of rage in Cat’s-Paw. But despite the play’s provocative topics and an effective framework, the Temporary Theatre’s production, directed by Suzanne E. Hannon, simply doesn’t arouse much passion. The play may stimulate a few neurons in the brain, but no hormones, which seem to be Mastrosimone’s real target.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Studio.