A white woman in a cloche hat and 1930s suit sits left at a round table covered with a white cloth. She is leaning in and talking to a white man in a gray suit who is seated left. His hat and two highball glasses sit on the table between them.
Tyler Meredith (left) and Yuriy Sardarov as Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker in Campaigns, Inc. at TimeLine Theatre Credit: Brett Beiner Photography

Politics has always been a “smelly kitchen,” to borrow a phrase from Jean Anouilh’s version of Antigone. But in 1933, two new cooks entered that kitchen. And the recipes they came up with continue to befoul the air of American elections.

Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker (a widow and a married man who eventually became wed to each other) formed Campaigns, Inc. that year, and soon focused on the singular goal of stopping the Democratic candidate for California governor, writer Upton Sinclair, from taking office in Sacramento. At first glance, it would seem unnecessary: California was a ruby red state where no Democrat held statewide office, and nearly all of the members of the state legislature were also GOP. But Sinclair, an avowed socialist and previous two-time election loser who had decided for pragmatic reasons to run as a Dem (sound familiar?) won more votes in the primary than any candidate—red or blue—in state history. It was almost as if he were conjuring into reality the vision he laid out in his 1933 essay “I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty,” written as his opening salvo. With the growth of pro-Sinclair EPIC (End Poverty in California) organizations across the state, as well as the new power held by Dems under FDR in Washington, conservatives were nervous.

Campaigns, Inc.
Through 9/25: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM, TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington, 773-281-8463, ext. 6, timelinetheatre.com, $42-$57 ($25 U.S. military personnel, veterans, first responders, spouses, and family; 35 percent off for students with valid ID)

But he who rises by his words can be undone by his words. That’s just one of the lessons contained in Will Allan’s history-play-by-way-of-screwball-comedy, Campaigns, Inc., now in a world premiere with Timeline Theatre Company under Nick Bowling’s direction. Baxter and Whitaker, as played by Tyler Meredith and Yuriy Sardarov, are kinda like what you’d imagine Mary Matalin and James Carville would be like if both were conservative, and they were played by Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. 

But the awful truth promoted by the two hungry operatives is really the product of what Sinclair called “the Lie Factory.” By taking sentences out of context from Sinclair’s fiction (“The sanctity of marriage. . . . I have had such a belief . . . I have it no longer”—lifted from Sinclair’s 1911 novel Love’s Pilgrimage) and running them as ads in conservative media outlets like the Los Angeles Times and William Randolph Hearst’s papers, the two made the upright Sinclair sound like a flaming advocate of free love. They also used direct-mail hit pieces while creating the one-stop shop of political consultancy as a profession. Add in the American fear of the S-word in politics, and it’s not surprising that Sinclair lost to GOPer Frank Merriam. 

The strength of Allan’s script lies in its ability to go beyond easy binaries of Sinclair as a sinned-against political innocent and Merriam and the GOP as rapacious monsters. As played by Anish Jethmalani, Sinclair is an obviously decent man, but one more comfortable with the written word than public speaking (he apparently had a stutter, which carries echoes of the attacks on our current POTUS’s elocution). And though he’s running as a Dem, he’s reluctant to endorse FDR’s New Deal, even as he seeks the endorsement of the man himself, because, he says, “It’s not good enough.” That proves fatal in the end. Many candidates have found themselves hoist upon the petards of their own purity and their inability to suss out the need for compromise and coalitions to get where they’re going.

By contrast, Terry Hamilton’s Merriam is a red-faced blusterer straight out of a Preston Sturges comedy. He wants power for its own sake and isn’t particular about how to get it. However, even though it’s Meredith’s Baxter who comes up with the most effective attacks on Sinclair (especially once the studios, fearful of writers unionizing, cooperate with smear newsreels), Merriam worries that his victory will be seen as riding the skirts of a woman. He demands that Baxter make peace with Whitaker after the two fall out over the latter’s family friendship with Sinclair. (Whitaker, stuck in what he claims is a loveless marriage, is clearly smitten with Baxter, like Grant’s Walter Burns trying to win back Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday.) Meredith’s nearly palpable rage at her talent and vision being overlooked by men in charge sets the stage for the paradox of women in the GOP who succeed in a man’s world while pushing traditional gender roles. (Hello, Phyllis Schlafly!)

Meantime, Sinclair is trying to enlist the aid of both Roosevelts (David Parkes as FDR and Jacqueline Grandt as Eleanor, more popular than her husband and thus a thorn in his side). He’s also trying to get his old friend Charlie Chaplin (Dave Honigman) to come out for him publicly. But Chaplin—who’s trying to get Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford (Parkes and Grandt again) to back his latest attempt at a talkie, Modern Times, and also finds Sinclair’s socialism at odds with his own even leftier political stances—balks at first.

So there are a lot of narrative balls in the air in Campaigns, Inc., sometimes to the detriment of the character development. But as a comic guidebook to how propaganda works, and how even the best candidate on paper can be demolished in three dimensions, it’s a peach. Allan has a sharp ear for ironic aphorisms—”They’re not lies. They’re different versions of the truth,” being one pungent example. (He also has fun dropping in references to steak as a nod to Sinclair’s most famous book, The Jungle, set in Chicago’s stockyards.) 

Bowling, always a dab hand at midcentury pieces, brings the same sensibility and energy to a play that’s obviously paying homage to the films of the era. The ensemble is tight, with moments of gritty poignancy provided by Grandt as a pro-Sinclair waitress. Anthony Churchill’s black-and-white projections and Sydney Lynne’s flexible set bring flash, verve, and a visual reminder of just how fast the tides can change in politics. 

In the end, it’s an open question as to how good a governor a rigid idealist like Sinclair would have been. But what’s absolutely beyond doubt is that Whitaker and Baxter set the low bar for political dirty tricks that have plagued us ever since. Campaigns, Inc. is a comedy, but given recent historic events, we know that tragic outcomes wait in the wings.