At the Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab to Sept. 24

MacBird!

By Barbara Garson

Directed by Ellen Dempsey

Produced by the American Century Theater

At Gunston Theater II to Oct. 7

There’s a sickness at the heart of In the Mood. This malady makes its victim feel so energetic he doesn’t need sleep; so potent he can and must taste every carnal pleasure; so extravagant that only the best and priciest of everything will do. It will, from time to time, plunge him into a thick, ugly despair. And it makes him blind and deaf to the needs of other people, from common courtesy to compassion. But when it’s got him in its spell, he truly believes he can save the world.

It’s never stated in the script that Neil Workman suffers from bipolar disorder, though the program notes make it clear—and any viewer who’s been close to someone with that illness will recognize Christopher Lane’s spot-on, award-worthy portrayal.

But that’s not the real sickness here. The real sickness is male power.

Early on in Irene Wurtzel’s memory play, Jennifer, Neil’s wife of 23 years, mentions something she’s read: Every time a man encounters another man on the street, his first thought is, Can I take him? Her husband, not to mention his boss and father figure, Charles, assures her it’s true. And they’ve had plenty of experience in that recurrent squared circle: Neil is undersecretary of state, and Charles measures himself daily against the portraits of Kissinger, Dulles, and other legendary diplomats lining the walls of his office.

Charles has found room on those walls for a painting by Jennifer, a talented artist who, since the couple’s arrival in Washington, has made great strides in her career. He doesn’t understand the painting, of course, but he buys it because he’s a good friend and a decent fellow. But “decent” isn’t enough for Neil, who, after a diplomatic visit to a revolution-torn African country, makes it his mission to do more than smile at the locals. He writes them a new constitution; he overstays his assigned time. He defies Charles and accuses his wife of sleeping with the boss. Soon his grandiose swagger shifts into obsession—he watches the same Skins game over and over, grunting in the glory of his team’s successes—and then into black clouds of despair.

Jennifer helps pull him out of the arms of the demon, but that particular monster always seems poised to make another house call. And when Charles can’t go to the Middle East for an important conference, guess who starts visualizing world peace—and then some?

Olney’s emotionally ambitious, deeply moving production, under Jim Petosa, gets so much right that it’s almost petty to complain about the wrong bits. But let’s, anyway: Some of the action takes place at stage-floor level, some on balconies to the left and right. (There’s a neat moment, early on, when Neil nimbly goes literally over the edge, sliding down the balcony rail to be with his wife.) But when the action plays on both levels, as in one pivotal scene that requires Jennifer to talk with people on both balconies, the distance can be awkward to the point of unintentional comedy.

And although her marital situation makes us feel for Jennifer—who seems to do the right thing, again and again, to no avail—MaryBeth Wise’s resolutely confident portrayal lacks variation. Stuck in a smeared painter’s smock and dowdy purple pants and shirt for the whole of the play, she often seems stuck in a single mood as well, spending much of the second half with the same frown of consternation on her face. The Workmans are one of those brainy, witty couples, but a bit more warmth might give Jennifer some depth.

Wurtzel has written surprisingly complex supporting characters, in particular the couple’s college-age son (Tim Spears) and Neil’s widowed mother (Halo Wines), either of whose relationships with Neil might have anchored an equally compelling play in itself. Theresa Barbato is effective as Neil’s assistant, and Leo Erickson compelling as Charles—a fellow who speaks far more softly than Neil while feeling no need to swing a big stick all the time.

Which brings us to Neil: handsome, intelligent (if a bit enamored of facts as poker chips), and apparently appealing to Jennifer. I didn’t like the Tom Cruise model of manhood even before couches started getting trampled, so maybe I’m the wrong judge of this sort of thing. But it’s a little hard to believe that Neil’s breakdown came so suddenly, when manic superiority seems so firmly rooted in his personality. Although Jennifer says she and Neil’s mother are close, she’s shocked to hear from her that his father was also mentally ill and that his death may have been a suicide. Nor is it clear how often Neil’s manly swagger has turned into a Santinilike bullying of his son, as it does near the end of the play.

A public service announcement is in order: Bipolar disorder and testosterone-transmitted narcissism aren’t the same thing. I can tell you from experience that not all bipolar people are as difficult to live with as Neil seems to be.

Still, In the Mood never becomes a disease-of-the-week melodrama, and in any case it doesn’t exist to make a statement, but rather to ask an intriguing question: What happens when you pour one part Great White Hunter and one part manic-depressive into Washington—and shake?

While we’re in that inside-the-Beltway mood, why not examine a play in which power corrupts not only absolutely, but in iambic pentameter?

Barbara Garson’s MacBird! premiered off-Broadway in February 1967, about a year-and-a-half before Nixon appeared on Laugh-In! and long before Jon Stewart became America’s most-trusted anchorman. The play superimposes the Kennedy and Johnson years—which were still going on as she penned the script—on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Ever wonder why Lady Bird planted all those gardens? Well, Lady MacBird doesn’t have a damned spot to get out: She’s got the odor of John Ken O’Dunc’s murder to efface. “We have to follow after her with Airwick,” one of her black-bouffanted daughters explains, as her mother offers a mad scene drawn as much from Hamlet as from the Scottish play.

Yep, the Ken O’Dunc dynasty has a cunning plan to take over the nation, or at least John and Bobby do. (They toss airplane bottles of booze to brother Ted as he blithely plays at crashing his Matchbox cars.) They co-opt cowboy-politico MacBird to help with national unity. But when he starts listening to a trio of weird folk—and even smoking from their bubbling cauldron—he revels in the knowledge that he will be omnipotent “until burning wood does come to Washington.”

You’re now thinking of those Saturday Night Live sketches, built on one tiny premise, stretched to fraying through braying repetition for three to five minutes, making you long for the damn Budweiser commercials already—and then stretched even further into feature films. This, surprisingly, is not one of those. In fact, it’s better than it needs to be. Garson, a classics scholar, is rigorous about the meter: In one gag, John tries to make iambs out of the “ask what you can do for your country” speech. She throws in Bardic references hither and yon, to hilarious effect. (Best of all is the blend of corn pone and Elizabethan given to MacBird: At John’s inauguration, he grumbles, “This here’s the winter of our discontent.”)

American Century Theater’s zesty production pours on the era-appropriate references, from a cameo by Marilyn in that white halter dress to a stuffed beagle to—well, it’d be a shame to spoil them all. If anything, the sight gags get a bit too frantic at times: When the large ensemble is all assembled, there’s enough attempted spotlight-grabbing for the 1968 Democratic convention.

Surprises abound, as the script and these able players—especially Joe Cronin as MacBird and Brian Crane in a flurry of minor roles—wring black humor from the JFK assassination, offer blackface agitprop, and prove eerily prescient about the fall of New England’s Camelot. One thing that won’t surprise anyone, though, is a sight gag during the prologue, when a floppy-codpieced actor brandishes photos of Kennedy and Johnson on sticks—then flips them around to reveal pictures of Dubya and Cheney. Some satire, like Shakespeare, is timeless.CP