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Change Agent is the best play you’ll ever see about President John Fitzgerald Kennedy dropping acid with a noted artist from the Washington Color School movement.
It is also likely the only play you’ll ever see about JFK, LSD, and abstract expressionism, but thankfully that qualifier is beside the point: Change Agent is a good play, period. Watching a president and painter hallucinate onstage is a coincidental bonus.
Arena Stage is hosting the world premiere of Craig Lucas’ enthralling drama centering on Mary Pinchot Meyer, an artist, journalist and longtime friend of JFK who eventually became his affair partner. (I use the phrase “affair partner” quite deliberately. As Monica Lewinsky—another woman well known for her interactions with a president—has pointed out, there is no male equivalent for the word “mistress,” making the term inherently sexist.)
The facts and folklore surrounding Pinchot Meyer are likely better known to theatergoers alive during the Camelot years. There’s no need for those born later to Wikipedia her in advance, however, because the script includes sufficient exposition, and it’s fun to go along for the clandestine ride. You should know that official White House logbooks record Pinchot Meyer visiting many times, usually while Jackie Kennedy was away, and that in 2016, a personal letter from JFK to Pinchot Meyer imploring her to join him for an “unwise, irrational” rendezvous on Cape Cod and begging for “a loving answer,” sold at auction for $89,000.
It seems unlikely he merely wanted to go sailing.
At Arena Stage, Andrea Abello plays the hard-to-get Pinchot Meyer. Four other actors take on various real-life roles. Our protagonist introduces her character by way of direct address: “It’s 1936. I’m 15, he’s two years older. I am blonde. [We were] both born White and wealthy.” Neither Abello nor her costar, Luis Vega, identify as White. Likewise, actress Regan Linton uses a wheelchair, even though her character, Pinchot Meyer’s BFF from Vassar College, Cicely d’Autremont Angleton, did not. Minimalist sets and a broken fourth wall suggest a non-literal world for the play, like we’re visitors in a dreamscape recapping the highlights of Pinchot Meyer’s life, rather than watching a spot-on reenactment of the real thing. The clever conceit allows for nontraditional casting in a historical drama, and it mostly works. Vega, who is bald and wiry, struggles to convey JFK’s ask-not-what-your-country-can-do-for-you charisma, while Kathryn Tkel, a biracial actress who plays a cheeky Jackie in a black bouffant wig, is easily believable as the long suffering first lady.
Lucas remains better known as a playwright, receiving Tony nominations for the books of Broadway musicals An American in Paris and Light in the Piazza, but Arena Stage made the correct choice letting him direct his own premiere. The creative team also includes artists worthy of cabinet-level positions for sets (Wilson Chin), costumes (Alejo Vietti) and lighting (Cha See).
The Kogod Cradle, the smallest of Arena Stage’s three theaters, is intentionally dimly lit when patrons enter. The back wall of the theater is encased in what looks like concrete, and a giant rectangle frame hangs from the ceiling. Although Lucas set no action in a Cold War bunker, the threat of international conflict—from World War II, where JFK was injured, to the Cuban Missile Crisis—hovers over nearly every scene.
In real life and onstage, Pinchot Meyer and JFK’s meet-cute happens at a prep school dance. A teenage future president tries to get the repartee flowing like spiked punch. “You might be just a little too accustomed to assuming you can do the talking,” 15-year-old Pinchot Meyer says, her gloved arms grasping Vega in an Arthur Murray-trained ballroom hold. Her dialogue is hardly age-appropriate when depicting Pinchot Meyer’s teen and college years. But Lucas wrote the script in meter, and as the play goes on, poetic wisdom lands with solid punches. “No nonsense,” she scolds, the night her relationship with JFK transitions to friends with candlelight benefits. Vega embraces her tenderly and responds that sex is “the only thing I don’t think qualifies as nonsense.”
That tryst takes place at a Provincetown cabin where Pinchot Meyer had been studying—and sleeping with—the noted Washington Color School artist Kenneth Noland. In the next scene, set in August 1960, she tees off with Jackie at a golf course. Projections beamed onto the bunker frame make it easy to keep track of the chronology, and genius segues keep the audience engaged. Immediately after the Provincetown “nonsense,” the stage lights brighten, and Tkel wheels a golf caddy onto an AstroTurf carpet that rims the lower-tier stage. Nonchalantly, Tkel hands Abello a pair of golf shoes, a prim cardigan, and a skirt to pull over her negligee.
Change Agent is full of clever moments like this, where transparent stagecraft feels like theatrical magic. Yet it’s disappointing that the production neither fully embraces Pinchot Meyer as an artist nor salutes her early career in journalism. By 1945, she was an editor for the Atlantic Monthly in Boston, a job she gave up when she moved to McClean with her ex-husband, CIA co-founder Cord Meyer, and the couple had children. Instead Lucas hones in on her laudable activism, from attending an early United Nations conference to opposing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. An easy way to pay homage would have been to incorporate projections of her work as well as Noland’s and other artists from the Washington Color School movement (assuming rights were available). Instead, projections by Caite Hevner mostly resemble impressionistic knock-offs rather than Pinchot Meyer’s bold paintings and clever collages.
Pinchot Meyer’s work was rarely exhibited during her lifetime, although one exhibition at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art received high praise. Had she lived longer, she might have become better known as an artist than a presidential sex partner. At least in Change Agent she is a smart, alluring affair partner with a paintbrush, skillfully wielding her colorful influence over Washington’s rich and powerful men.
Change Agent, written and directed by Craig Lucas, runs through March 6 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. arenastag.org. $82–$115. Various discounts available.