at the Garage

The protagonist of The Kashubian Tapes, a one-man show featuring Peter Reinemann, claims to have evidence that the United States supplied Iran with weapons and parts for years before the Iran-contra scandal. The evidence is Pulitzer Prize material, yet no one will touch it. No one will even listen to him. No one, that is, but the doughnut-eating, coffee-drinking men who go in and out of the smoky-windowed van parked outside his apartment for two years, and his higher-ups at OSHA, who fire him. Why, he cries in one of the show’s two hair-raising climaxes, doesn’t the Dukakis campaign want to use this information against Bush?

The evidence, despite the fragmented way in which it’s presented, is compelling. The protagonist–whose name Reinemann picks each night during the prologue by opening the phone book at random (it was “Robert North” the night I went)–gets on the evidence-gathering trail as an OSHA inspector investigating a south-side manufacturer of tank parts. He finds some rather odd firing practices: one man was fired for refusing to authorize shoddy equipment, another immediately after maiming his hand in a press. North also finds that unmarked green crates are being shipped to Copenhagen, from there to Marseilles, and from there to Athens. At Athens he loses the paper trail; the green crates ship out secretly at night. But he manages to trace Richard Secord’s and Oliver North’s financial arrangements to a Swiss shipping magnate, whose ships full of unmarked green crates make it through the Persian Gulf during the toughest battles and arrive safely in Iran.

Whether or not this material is true–Dan Sutherland, the playwright, claims it’s a fictionalized treatment of real events–it makes a good play. “Robert North” needs to be unleashed on a stage. Explosive, intelligent, funny, he tells his story in a rambling, human way, addressing us directly and at one point handing out candy. Direct address is appropriate to the confrontational nature of the show, and Peter Reinemann–worried, likable–makes it work. The sad, distracted, sweet way in which he delivers the last line–“Thanks for listening”–is surprising and moving. Rarely does a character seem so vulnerable.

North is vulnerable because everything matters to him. This inability to distance himself gives life to his diffuse digressions, most of which ring true. We do live in a country where immigrants have opportunities they’ll defend, where civil rights must still be struggled for, where so-called patriots trample the Constitution, where the government spies on its citizens and lies about its intentions, where Kashubian immigrants can build a church in honor of Saint Josaphat, where TV shows provide some of the most popular exports, where cabbages can be grown profitably. For North, these facts are connected, and in the end their collective effect resonates like a chord played on a well-built guitar.

The one note that doesn’t ring true is an analogy between Hitler and Reagan. North contends that, just as Reagan was created by Hollywood and TV, so Hitler was created by Wagner’s operas. This strikes me as too pat. Even if it’s true that Hitler exploited Wagner’s images, the fact remains that Hitler was the Leader and Reagan was a front man. And if, as North contends, Hitler was the star of the biggest, most important box-office hit ever, why should we, as North says we should, feel ashamed for being especially interested in him? This play itself exploits our fascination with Hitler.

The analogy does have a payoff, however. The Kashubian Tapes raises the question: if the Germans of the Nazi era are responsible for the holocaust, then are the Americans of the Reagan era responsible for the Iran-Iraq war? After all, the play argues, without our continuous military aid, Khomeini’s stockpile of American-made weapons would have run out or fallen apart years before the war ended. It’s a question the play can’t answer. Nor can the play answer the question: why did we do this?

The show has many charms. Among these is the funny, pointed use of the porn-shop set for Prop Theatre’s Smut, now running in the same space. Another is Reinemann’s excellent comic timing. He gives a rare pleasure with his unusual delivery, misspeaking and then correcting himself as if he’s never before said what he’s saying, creating a sense of urgency and immediacy. But most impressive are the commitment and skill writer Sutherland and actor Reinemann bring to the material. These produce a non-Aristotelian catharsis, one that purges us of our cynicism and complacency.