Fort Fringe—-The Shop
Thursday, July 18, 10 p.m. Saturday, July 20, 2:15 p.m. Saturday, July 27, 9:15 p.m.
They say: “He wants you for his ambassador in a great place. Valerie Butts went from a soul-killing prairie town to a swinging European capital with no money and a bumbling klutz for a husband. You can too. Find out how.”
My two enduring rules for the Capital Fringe Festival are 1) avoid the prosecco and, 2) always see anything that markets itself as political satire. Thing is, DC being DC the odds are good that these plays about staffers, aides and frustrated bureaucrats were actually written by staffers, aides and frustrated bureaucrats. This means you can count on a high level of technical accuracy, as well as a certain pithiness that you wouldn’t get if someone was just following government servants around for research.
But Rule #2 has an ugly side. These people, whom I’m sure were all excellent at their public service jobs, don’t always make the best writers. Madam Ambassador, about a bored Midwestern housewife who becomes a diplomat for all the wrong reasons, is just such a play, with a script that’s as lackluster as it is meticulously accurate.
Here’s the basic idea: Valerie Butts, widow of a disgraced and subsequently deceased senator decides that she’s bored in Illinois and wants to get back into public service. Her new husband is a consummate oaf with an oily politician for a best friend and Val, played by Patricia Magno, manipulates her way through the two of them into an ambassador’s gig in Copenhagen. It’s a funny enough concept; greedy, vain ex-politico wants back in because she misses the limelight more than the work. But it ultimately doesn’t click because, if anything, playwright Duke Ryan knows a little bit too much about his subject material.
According to the program, Ryan is a former diplomat which did not surprise me in the least. His script is crammed with exposition about exactly how and why its shady backroom deals are going down. Ultimately, that makes them less funny. The jokes are there and some of them are pretty good, but after a while it gets tough to laugh at characters who seem to do nothing but explain what’s going on.
As for said characters, they’re serviceable, but not exemplary. Magno’s Val, and Doug Graupman, as her husband Buzz, make an amusing pair in an Odd Couple sort of way, but their performances are both fairly staid, and neither reaches any highs or lows to speak of. You can’t really blame the actors for that though. It’s tough to seem human when 90% of your dialogue is devoted to clarifying what you’re talking about. The most interesting member of the cast to watch was Jim Epstein as Gumpston, Buzz’s slimy buddy, probably because his was the most intriguing character arc, or at least the one least bogged down with details.
All things considered, I stand by Rule #2, Madam Ambassador notwithstanding. It’s a nice, functional little play, even if its compulsive need to explain misses the best thing about a Washington comedy. At least half the fun of political satire is the unexplained, and the creeping notion that the people making these convoluted bargains don’t understand them any better than we do. To over-enlighten is to kill that cheeky sense of fun, plus we all know the old adage by now about what happens when you have to explain a joke.
See it if: You like your political comedies straightforward, without a lot of pesky ambiguities.
Skip it if: You like a little more humor, and a little less details.