Wisdom Bridge Theatre

Governments are corrupt. Politics is a dirty business. The people who lust after power the most are usually the ones most likely to abuse it.

Pretty mundane stuff, yet the politically paranoid regard it as revealed truth, accessible only to a select few. They see conspiracy where most of us see stupidity and incompetence, and because of their “insight” into the affairs of government, they often appear smug, as though the mere awareness of corruption confers moral superiority.

Now, with people like Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, and Richard Nixon in the world, a bit of political paranoia maybe appropriate. But the politically paranoid tend to discredit themselves by overstating their case. Like certain born-again Christians, they shout about evil with such fervor that one begins to suspect they’re wrestling with inner demons, not the actual evil in the world.

Circe & Bravo bears signs of political paranoia. It attempts to depict a government run by madmen intent on embroiling the world in nuclear war. The president is convinced the United States could win such a war, but his wife, a former beauty queen and a current alcoholic, is appalled by his attitude. Like the late Martha Mitchell, wife of President Nixon’s attorney general, she keeps making late-night calls to the New York Times, embarrassing the president and his men with her outspoken opinions.

The play takes place during a nuclear alert, with the first lady, code-named Circe, confined to the lodge at Camp David, where a Secret Service agent known only as Bravo watches her through his mirrored sunglasses, frequently jotting down what she says and does.

This may sound like a promising setup, but Donald Freed squanders it by trying to assert his own smug “insight” into the affairs of government.

Freed has built a career on political paranoia. His plays include Inquest, about the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; The White Crow: Eichmann in Jerusalem; and Secret Honor, which consists of an imaginary monologue delivered by Richard Nixon after his resignation. He collaborated with Mark Lane and Dalton Trumbo on Executive Action, a film about political assassination, and he wrote a novel called Death in Washington, in which he accused the CIA of assisting in the assassination of Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C., in 1976. (David Atlee Phillips, a retired CIA operative named in the book brought a $200 million libel suit against Freed and the publisher. After nearly five years of litigation, the suit was settled out of court, with Freed and his coauthor, Fred Landis, agreeing to retract the statements they made about Phillips. But Freed remains undeterred: his most recent play, The Quartered Man, is about CIA activities in Central America.)

There is a market for political paranoia, and Freed can’t be faulted for tapping into it. It’s probably a good idea to have authors out there trying to demonstrate how easily our liberty could be taken away by clandestine agents of the government. And besides, stories, based on such intrigues, can be full of excitement and suspense.

Unfortunately, Circe & Bravo fails both as political analysis and as entertainment. It is just a sophomoric muddle of mythology and nuclear dread masquerading as a profound vision.

The mythology is straightforward enough. Circe was an enchantress in the Odyssey of Homer who transformed the companions of Odysseus into swine. Freed’s Circe reverses the stunt — she transforms the swine assigned to guard her into a human being. (One of the definitions of “bravo” is “a hired assassin,” and Bravo admits he engaged in torture and assassination as a Green Beret in Vietnam.)

This transformation takes place through the caprice of the playwright, not through any evolution of the characters or the plot. The exposition consists of long, clumsy speeches by Circe, who virtually announces who she is and what the playwright is trying to say through her:

“Circe was the name of an old-timey Greek witch that just happens to be assigned to me,” she tells the befuddled Bravo. “Me, the former ‘Miss LSU’ — and closet cultural critic, whose totally innocent off-the-record (or off-the-wall, if you agree with my husband’s media advisers), whose completely innocent comments to certain trusted friends have sent our hero, our husband, to the hustings out in the Horse Latitudes of the New Hampshire Primary, hip-high in snow and ten points down in the polls, trying to explain away the first lady’s midnight calls to the New York Times, without coming right out and saying that she’s suffering from delusions of ‘Deep Throat’ and headed for a padded cell at Saint Elizabeth’s.”

In an interview in the Wisdom Bridge Theatre’s newsletter, Freed explains that Circe is attacking male power. “She married into power, and has always been drawn to male power,” he says. “Bravo has been molded by it.”

But Freed maintains that malignant power is a function of frustrated sexuality — a painfully facile equation. In her rambling, Circe sneers at the “Air Force One circus of whoremasters” who hold orgies for the presidential entourage at secret mountain retreats, and she notes that Reagan and a dozen other presidents called their wives “mommy.”

Finally, she begins to see Bravo as one of the football players who used to gang-bang her “in somebody’s daddy’s big old Cadillac, and you football boys are slipping in and out of the car as silent as ghosts, holding up your rubber for me to see, like good little boys. . . . You country boys wanted me to change you from animals into human beings. . . . Then you wouldn’t have to get drunk and half kill each other in order to touch and be close. You had me.”

Suddenly, Bravo is transformed, but Freed has to rely entirely on enchantment to effect the change — there is no logical transition built into the script. One minute, Bravo is a hardened military man who tests his masculinity by burning his hand with a hot poker. The next minute, he is half-naked, whimpering in Circe’s arms, presumably because of her enchanting discourse.

Her discourse, however, is anything but enchanting, which makes it difficult to assess Carol Mayo Jenkins’s performance as Circe. It’s hard for an actress to look good while reciting such bad dialogue, but Jenkins, who played Elizabeth Sherwood in the TV series, Fame, delivers her lines with conviction, and maneuvers her way deftly through Circe’s personality changes. Layne Beamer projects the perfect combination of innocence and ruthless obedience as Bravo. Linda Buchanan’s conception of the lodge at Camp David, with a boar’s head mounted above the fireplace, evokes the macho mystique that the playwright is trying to conjure. Rob Milburn’s sound effects — walkie-talkie broadcasts, hovering helicopters, and some incidental music he composed with Michael Bodeen — are remarkably effective coming out of Wisdom Bridge’s superb sound system.

But all of this is at the service of a script that remains aggressively irritating, despite a fine production. Circe is just a mouthpiece — no, make that a megaphone — for Freed’s suspicions about the government, and his play, despite a clever setup, sounds more like a paranoid diatribe than an insightful analysis of the corruptive power of power.