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Running Unopposed

Even talented playwrights fall into one trap: pandering to the lefty theatergoing audience.

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With only ten months to go, it looks like my wish won’t come true. All I’ve wanted, for seven long years, is for somebody to write one measly play in defense of President Bush. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as appalled by his swaggering ineptitude as everybody else. But that’s the point. Throughout its history, political theater at its best has attacked what everybody thinks, challenging people’s prejudices and posing questions that don’t have easy answers, if there are answers at all.

Caryl Churchill’s grasp of that fact—along with her spiky intelligence and flair for adventures in form—long ago landed her on a short list of great living playwrights. So it stings to discover that just when the world needs one of her trademark spurs to think harder, she gives us a play, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, with a dismaying lack of the virtues that earned her so many hard-core fans, myself included.

On a couch levitating above the stage, Sam (played by Scott Cohen, and gnomically described in the program as “a country”) invites his former fling Guy (played by Samuel West, and described as “a man”) to abandon his family and run off with him. Critics in Britain, where the play premiered a year and a half ago, saw an allegory for U.S.-U.K. relations in the way that the timid, Blair-ish Englishman Guy gets bullied by Sam, the devious, corrupt, hypocritical, super-destructive Yankee Mephistopheles. Using lovers’ shorthand, they spend much of the play trading the names of places and leaders the United States has attacked in the last 50 years, pausing now and then so Sam can talk his lover out of a humane concern for the poor. Lord knows this country has some atoning to do, but it’s hard to fathom what Churchill meant to accomplish with an attack this cartoonish, beyond making left-leaning theater audiences feel loved. One of her lists even includes Bosnia, a country we bombed to keep the Serbs from raping and killing more Muslims.

Even when she’s not at her incisive best, Churchill delivers a sly theatrical punch. When Sam and Guy coo about the endlessness of space, she makes the giddiness of megalomania sound like the giddiness of love. Yet much like the scattered laughs in David Mamet’s presidential comedy November, moments like this serve mainly to remind you how small the play looks next to the writer’s other, tougher work, and how much better our murky times ask great writers to be.

In Michael Murphy’s new play, a character makes explicit what Churchill implies: that America is the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” This isn’t another flare-up from an America-hater, though: It’s a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. In the engrossing, heartbreaking The Conscientious Objector, Murphy traces King’s struggle in the last years of his life to broaden his focus from civil rights to ending the Vietnam War.

Just last summer, the downtown company Waterwell covered this terrain in their raucous musical The/King/Operetta, but Murphy’s play never feels like a retread. King’s decision to break with his uneasy ally LBJ over the war—a move opposed by his closest advisers, one that jeopardized much of what they’d achieved—is America’s answer to Greek tragedy, a tale full of larger-than-life characters in which irreconcilable interests and personal loyalties collide.

Murphy may trip on a movie-of-the-week moment now and then, but his depiction of the battle between two sincere and well-meaning giants of the left offers a sharp corrective to people who think our problems are simple. In the play’s most harrowing scene (a fictionalized riff on an actual phone call), King and LBJ—both worn out, both knowing they can’t possibly bear the burdens placed on them—pray together in the Oval Office. John Cullum does his best work in years here as the serpentine, beaten president. If Bush gets treated with half so much grace when his turn comes, he should count himself lucky.

Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?
By Caryl Churchill.
The Public Theater. Through April 6.

The Conscientious Objector
By Michael Murphy.
Clurman Theatre. Through April 19.

E-mail: theatercritic@newyorkmag.com.


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