Center Theater

It’s a depressingly familiar pattern. A country is invaded, supposedly at the spontaneous request of its oppressed citizens. To make their offense look defensive the invaders set up a provisional government, which then calls for a military occupation (ostensibly to protect the newly liberated citizens). The result: a coup camouflaged as the irresistible will of an all-suffering people. Something like Grenada, Panama, Kuwait.

A similar orchestrated overthrow was supposed to happen beginning April 17, 1961, when the CIA masterminded the invasion of 1,500 anti-Castro Cuban exiles. But the Bay of Pigs debacle was costly and rivaled in incompetence only by the botched rescue of the Iranian hostages, the retaking of the Mayaguez, the bombing of Tripoli, and our bloody, pointless military involvement in Vietnam and Lebanon.

Newly elected president Kennedy initially approved this crackbrained scheme; hatched by cold warriors of the Eisenhower administration, it was a big departure from the official policy of merely “containing” communism. But in the end Kennedy refused to provide the military support the insurgents required, and Fidel Castro’s troops captured and killed most of the betrayed exiles. CIA chief Allen Dulles resigned, saying philosophically, “Obviously you cannot tell of operations that go along well. Those that go badly generally speak for themselves.”

Keith Reddin, author of Rum and Coke, is a keen-eyed, sharpshooting, impassioned young playwright who has pilloried American excesses in Life and Limb, The Highest Standard of Living, Big Time, and Peacekeeper. Rum and Coke, though weaker,wickedly replays the Bay of Pigs disaster as narrated by an increasingly disillusioned CIA specialist.

An advantaged Yale graduate who once vacationed in Havana, Jake Seward is recruited to train the rebels in radio propaganda but is uneasy about his work as a liaison. On one side are the button-down CIA bureaucrats, ignorantly cocksure that the invasion will trigger a popular uprising. On the other side are the Cuban true believers who are resolved to risk their lives (Reddin’s sympathies are clearly with them).

Jake silently seethes as he hears the CIA’s idiotic plans: to spray Castro’s radio station with LSD and have him flip out on the air, or to put thallium in his shoes to make his beard fall out, or to hire the mob for the hit, which, not incidentally, would let it take back the casinos it ran under Batista. Jake also cautions his Cuban freedom fighters not to boast about U.S. involvement, partly because it could backfire but mainly because Jake suspects treachery is imminent.

Jake is increasingly isolated. His sister Linda, a quasi-liberal reporter for Time, warns him against the impending folly but she’s quickly quieted by an offer to become Jackie Kennedy’s press secretary. Jake consults Richard Nixon (whom he’d protected in 1958 when the vice president was stoned by students in Caracas), but Nixon just spews his usual paranoid pep talk. Desperate to get the press to halt the invasion before it self-destructs, Jake approaches another reporter–only to be trapped by his own agency. In the end Jake prophetically rationalizes the horror by saying, “If it hadn’t been this time at the Bay of Pigs, it would have been somewhere else, at some other time.”

Certainly Reddin has done his homework, throwing in revealing details for ironic effect, such as the fact that the U.S. flew prostitutes to Guatemala to service the horny rebels while they were training. He also has a good ear for those casual, devastating words that indict imperious policymakers (“We have no time to be consulting the Cubans on this thing,” says the chief CIA plotter about the future martyrs).

But Rum and Coke loses its fizz when Reddin can’t generate enough excitement to counterbalance the known outcome. Despite his cinematic crosscutting and dovetailing crises, there’s little tension here, other than Jake’s internal conflict, and little subtlety in the characterizations (the CIA intriguers are self-deceiving ideologues, the Cuban exiles lovable losers).

Dan LaMorte’s humorless, glacially paced staging at Center Theater only intensifies these failings. Deadly solemn in his refusal to have any fun with the script, LaMorte blunts whatever edge the play could hope to have. The dutiful, heavy-handed realism dries out Reddin’s ironies and mercilessly exposes the pedantic side of his research. It’s as if an invisible pointer were constantly thumping against an unseen blackboard.

This is all the stranger because Rob Hamilton’s cartoonlike set pieces suggest a playfulness that’s nowhere to be seen. RJ Coleman plays Jake with determined zeal but makes too small a distinction between the demoralized narrator and the eager young operative. As Jake’s ambitious journalist sister, Sheryl Nieman is better, conveying Linda’s inability to resist corruption as well as her willing self-deception. Gus Buktenica, playing the chief CIA bungler, clearly grasps the required combination of opportunistic sleaze and impenetrable arrogance, while Champ Clark neatly depicts Richard Nixon at his slippery worst. But again the slow pace defeats any chance for comic flair.

A similar comic deflation hampers our appreciation of Miguel, the chief Cuban freedom fighter and a richly contradictory character. Ed Torres strongly conveys Miguel’s trusting ardor. But his character has a different side, which he reveals when he gratefully tells Jake about how one of the imported whores performed some hilariously contorted tricks. This speech is a comic marvel and ought to convulse us–if it were ever delivered fast enough to peak. But like so much here, it just slumps to the stage.