Steppenwolf Theatre’s First Look Repertory of New Work gave us our first look at The North Plan back in 2010, and I’d say most of us were delighted with what we saw. Jason Wells’s writing came across as sharp, dark political comedy. Kimberly Senior’s staging was crisp and fast.
But First Look is peculiar in that it offers playwrights a luxurious cross between a workshop and a premiere. Scripts get a developmental going over on their way to a full production that’s supposed to be public and professional but also, somehow, neither. (This ambiguity was a source of controversy in the initial years of the program, when critics wanted to review the premiere and Steppenwolf wanted to protect the workshop. A simple protocol was put in place.)
Now Theater Wit is giving The North Plan a straightforward professional run, and the question is whether that changes things. Does the show hold up when it’s no longer protected by the developmental bubble? Does it bear a second look?
Well, yes and no.
The North Plan puts us in one of those Roland Emmerich-esque not-too-distant futures when the country is going to hell in a handbasket. Something awful has happened; we’re never told what, but it appears to be on the order of an Oklahoma City bombing or a 9/11. Or perhaps worse. A cabal within the federal government has seized control in response, setting up a “provisional government,” declaring martial law, and vowing to “restore order.” Checkpoints and curfews have been established. Tanks are fanning out across the interstate highway system.
Appalled by the crackdown, a State Department functionary named Carlton Berg goes rogue. Having discovered a list of enemies the provisional government plans to put in concentration camps, he copies it onto a flash drive and heads south, apparently hoping to hook up with fellow dissidents, publish the list, and bring the cabal down. But he gets intercepted on the way by Sheriff Swenson of tiny little Lodus, Missouri. Homeland Security is called. Agents are sent down to Lodus, where they’re supposed to take Carlton into custody and return him to Washington. Or perhaps worse.
Stuck in a holding pen, Carlton’s only hope is to convince one of the other people in the sheriff’s office to risk helping him out. Swenson himself is a decent sort whose hidden depths are suggested by the fact that he catches the reference when Carlton alludes to Kafka. But he’s also a former military man with a solid respect for order, rank, and the law. Swenson’s civilian assistant, Shonda, looks to Carlton like a natural ally since she’s young and African American and therefore, he supposes, disenfranchised. But she resents the stereotype. She’d very much rather keep her head down, get a degree, and improve her standard of living.
That leaves only redneck, logorrheic Tanya, whose animal cunning is compromised almost—though not quite—to the point of negation by her stupidity. Much of the humor in The North Plan comes out of those moments when Tanya’s capacity for outwitting herself slugs it out with her reserves of pure, dumb luck.
Directed, like the First Look version, by Senior, the Theater Wit production discloses a few of the holes in The North Plan and opens one or two new ones. Probably the biggest problem is that Carlton’s mission makes no sense in the current tech environment, where—as WikiLeaks and the Arab Spring have so vividly demonstrated—anyone can be a journalist, strategist, propagandist, whistle-blower, saboteur, and international hero as long as he doesn’t let his battery run low. If there’s a reason why Carlton can’t carry out his part of the revolution with a cell phone, I didn’t catch it.
Another difficulty: Tanya’s behavior. As stone-dumb as she is, she still needs a motive for the choices she makes, especially when they run counter to her interests and previous decisions. That motive isn’t communicated in Kate Buddeke‘s performance. Or at least it wasn’t on opening night, when her timing seemed terribly off. Buddeke is a fine actress, but the Tanya she’s put onstage doesn’t hint at an emotional life that could justify where she so abruptly ends up.
Still, Wells’s dialog remains funny and chilling, sometimes by turns and sometimes all at once. He consistently supplies acid, dystopian laughs, and at least one running gag that would’ve made George Orwell proud: the HSD agents keep trying to get the main office in Washington to give them an answer to their policy question, “Are we killing people or not?”