Oliver North—megalomaniac or merely overzealous Christian soldier? That’s what Three Nights in Tehran, John Strand’s rambunctious new political farce, wants us to consider. And make no mistake, we’re meant to have a good time while we ponder the question—though the play is finally more sympathetic to its main character than might be expected.
Strand invites the (presumably left-leaning) audience to watch and snicker as gung-ho patriot North, ineffectual national security bureaucrat Robert “Bud” McFarlane, and a posse of irritable spies, sleazy arms dealers, possibly unreliable double agents, and maddeningly inscrutable Iranian functionaries check into a Tehran hotel to hammer out the first of those arms-for-hostages deals the Reagan administration became so famous for.
Trouble is, the Yanks seem to have descended on the Iranian capital without a clear idea of what they’re getting into. McFarlane is nominally in charge, but North (a deliciously manic Bill Mondy) is responsible for logistics, and it soon becomes obvious that though the decorated Vietnam vet may be ideologically committed to “redrawing the map of the Middle East,” he’s out of his element when it comes to dealing with actual Middle Easterners: He’s not up on the difference between Arabs and Persians, for instance, and he’s not sure why it should matter that he’s scheduled sensitive negotiations during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when the faithful don’t eat a bite from sunrise to sundown.
A kind of free-associative paranoia is the order of the day, with everyone worried about bugs but talking incessantly about their plans anyway. When things get tense, the jumpy conspirators tend to turn on each other: “A Jew in Muslimland,” one CIA agent snarls at an Israeli comrade. “They find out, and your ass is hummus.”
Ollie spends his free time frantically taking notes for his autobiography, describing the unfolding events in the purplest, self-aggrandizing prose (lifted, presumably, from one of the real North’s excruciating books); to fortify his resolve, he lets his mind wander back to dwell sentimentally on inspirational meetings with “the Old Man,” or thinks of those innocent American hostages immured in “the bombed-out bowels of Beirut.” By contrast, Michael Goodwin’s buffoonish McFarlane, desperately trying to get a handle on the situation, tends to speak in clipped George Bushisms: “Off to a bad start. Not getting frazzled. Too much at stake.” But of course he is frazzled, right from the beginning; you know the mission’s in trouble when the putative leader can’t tell his suicide pills from his tranquilizers.
Joining the festivities, and adding measurably to the fun, is Sarah Marshall, who seems to be enjoying herself tremendously as a smart-aleck Daemon who pops out of closets at the oddest moments to cajole and kvetch. She represents the sum of North’s fears about politics, religion, and his own moral fiber; interestingly enough, she also turns out to be his chief hope for salvation. “I am the little girl inside you,” she tells a visibly unnerved North, and the image is just audacious enough to work. Marshall’s character saves Three Nights in Tehran from the pitfalls of predictability and political one-dimensionality; the Daemon helps us understand Ollie as a human being, demands that we rethink our preconceived notions about his motivations, and forbids us to dismiss him as irredeemable. Still, Strand isn’t shy about letting us know where his political sympathies lie. During their three-day stay in Tehran, everyone, including Ollie, gets to take a swipe at “religious fanatics with a stranglehold on policy…waving prayer books, telling people they can believe in this but they can’t believe in that.” They’re talking about Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist revolutionaries, of course, not the American religious right, but Mondy lets a puzzled flicker of almost-recognition cross Ollie’s face whenever someone talks about the benefits of separating of church and state. But again, Strand isn’t interested in simply bashing North; he makes it clear that whatever his failings, this flawed hero is genuinely anguished about the hostages whose fate he thinks is in his hands alone.
Three Nights in Tehran is cleverly written and engagingly quirky enough to get by all on its own, but Kyle Donnelly, in her directorial debut at Signature, has put together such a brisk, bouncy production that even North himself might be tempted to like it. It’s not profound, and it’d probably annoy the life out of a die-hard Ollie booster, but it’s undeniably witty stuff performed with precision by an accomplished cast. (Hugh Nees, Marty Lodge, and Michael Wikes do excellent ensemble work as the three disgruntled secret agents.) In the end, Strand convicts North only of overzealousness in following the dictates of his “unshakable faith”—and wonders if, after all, that’s not just as dangerous as genuine malice.