“No one was in a position not to know as much as the President didn’t”–Secretary of State Bishop, Mastergate

Since he left office Ronald Reagan’s once-famous Teflon coating has begun to flake off–the result of growing disillusionment in which the S & L crisis, dirty deals with Saddam Hussein, the failure of our schools, economic disparities, and an enormous deficit have all played their parts. Yet during his reign Reagan’s invulnerability to scandal seemed proof that presidential immunity could rival papal infallibility.

Why did the truth take so long?

Mastergate, Larry Gelbart’s 1988 “play on words” satirizing the Iran-contra hearings, provides a powerful explanation for this eight-year denial of reality and abdication of responsibility: as much as the double-talking idiots who led us into the Iran-contra scandal subverted the Constitution, they also subverted our language. And there’s no better smoke screen.

As you might expect from the genius who concocted M*A*S*H* and Tootsie, Gelbart provides the most pointed political satire since MacBird savaged LBJ’s hypocrisy in Vietnam. Unfortunately, like MacBird and Rapmaster Ronnie, Mastergate is inevitably dated. That’s too bad, because its wicked exposure of “debilitating governmental self-abuse” and the consequent rape of the language skewers persistent thought crimes. Every national election provides additional evidence of a lobotomized body politic–threadbare political discourse that relies on the voters’ preference for the soothing “big lie” over the inconvenient truth, for instance, or the perverse desire to force new meanings on old words or invent new words that dispense with old associations: “revenue enhancement” for taxes, “collateral damage” rather than dead babies.

For better or worse, Mastergate sticks to the fictionalized facts of the Iran-contra scandal. It depicts a congressional hearing into the CIA’s diversion of monies from a bogus Hollywood film (“Tet!–The Movie”) to finance the overthrow by “Los Otros” of the banana republic of Ambigua, which recently suffered an embarrassing outburst of democracy led by a Dr. Overtega, a one-time podiatrist. He and his band of foot soldiers dared to commit the crime of not being on the CIA payroll.

Throughout this “unhearing” a series of smugly duplicitous government witnesses–escapees from a bureaucratic Alice in Wonderland–testify tentatively or brusquely to their nonattendance at meetings where no one recalls who was not there in order to not say anything memorable to people they can’t recall talking to at the time. These dangerous clowns perform in a circus where evasions, delaying tactics, obfuscations, circumlocutions, non sequiturs, redundancies, tautologies, malapropisms, football metaphors, extenuations, and euphemisms anesthetize the facts–and alas, our curiosity to know them.

The play’s tone is set in opening remarks by the self-important committee chair, Senator Bowman: “This panel, which intends to give every appearance of being bipartisan, will be ever-mindful of the President’s instructions to dig as far down as we can, no matter how high up that might take us. . . . We are not looking for hides to skin, nor goats to scape. We’re just trying to get all the facts together in one room at the same time in the hope that they’ll somehow recognize each other. Our chief goal is to answer the questions: ‘What did the President know and does he have any idea that he knew it?'”

Of course that goal eludes them. In this world of “deniability,” cover-ups, red herrings, and “in-humanitarian” aid, in which a Hollywood war epic and covert counterinsurgency are indistinguishable, any close encounter with the truth would be unthinkably rational. No, we’re in the no-fault world of the passive voice: “Mistakes were made.”

The key appearance here is by Major Manley Battle, a grandstanding, beribboned popinjay who assaults the hearing with rhetoric, a map, and a pointer. This slippery four-star major, “a soldier who played with toy leaders,” launches into a by-the-numbers anti-Communist orgy of disinformation while his faithful wife does a Betsy Ross imitation with the American flag. Manley’s onslaught of “patriotism” panics the committee into paralysis. Mission accomplished.

Three years have taken their toll on the topicality of Mastergate: Interplay’s Chicago premiere, the first post-Broadway production, comes none too soon. Some stuff now seems silly rather than scathing: Manley Battle’s anti-Communism is more quaint than dangerous. And Gelbart’s inexhaustible delight in his neologisms is not as contagious as he might wish.

The action teems with the twists and turns you’d expect from Gelbart, and William Pullinsi’s staging seldom misses a sight or sound gag. Still, the production could use more manic, stylized, and cartoonlike characters to complement the goofy testimony. Instead the play’s given a fairly realistic treatment–more Judgement at Nuremberg than Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

Standouts are Michael Weber, rigid with righteousness as the opportunistic patriot Manley; Ron Engler as the bilious committee chairman; and Pamela Webster as perky reporter Merry Chase, a cunning amalgam of Pauley, Sawyers, and Norville.

Andrew J. Dahlman’s wood-paneled, flag-draped hearing room, complete with twin closed-circuit-TV monitors, is the perfect scene of the crime. Caryn Weglarz’s costumes are clever creations, but like the staging itself, they could be wilder and still not miss their targets.