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Malice Aforethought 

"Don't forget," said playwright Jim Fitzmorris, in the post-performance discussion of his new play With Malice Towards All, "these are the good guys." He was talking about the campaign staff of congressman-elect Billy McCovey. And he was responding to the observation that not one of these people ever paused, even for a moment, to talk about an issue, a policy or anything relating to the public good. Winning the game. That was the whole ball of wax. Winning, plus the rewards that attend winning: "jobs, contracts, favors." The unspoken implication is that issues are irrelevant, except in as much as they can help win or help lose the game.

Should a moment of moral questioning have occurred? The play would have been tidier. But it also would have been more conventional.

One of the things that makes With Malice Towards All such a vibrant and fascinating evening of theater is the writer's uncompromising depiction of politics -- as a profession -- and the people who inhabit it. In a sense, Fitzmorris' unstated answer to my question is, get real, these people are professionals. They've got tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake on a toss of the dice. More than that, they've got their careers, their very identities, at stake. To expect them to sit around talking about the ethics of what they're doing would be like expecting trainers at the Fair Grounds to sit around talking about whether horse racing was a form of cruelty to animals.

True. And yet, one would be shocked to hear a bunch of horse trainers talking about loosening an opposing jockey's saddle cinch or sneaking Thorazine into his morning coffee, while these political "good" guys take dirty tricks for granted. McCovey wins thanks to "the old nasty flyer trick." His campaign, seemingly going down the tubes, secretly hires a gay rights organization to print and distribute a flyer that accuses McCovey himself of being a pederast. This galvanizes McCovey supporters, and discredits the opposition; at the same time, forcing them to offer some guarded praise of McCovey's character in order to avoid the appearance of collusion in the scurrilous attacks.

Hard ball, to say the least. But there's not a glimmer of moral doubt in the smoke-filled rooms. I suppose it would take a gullible, idealistic volunteer to voice any such doubt -- like the unfortunate servant in King Lear who is killed for resisting the malevolence of his betters.

These were a few of my thoughts as I walked out of the theater. But only a few. For With Malice Towards All is a thought-provoking play -- in the best sense. It stays with you and it bears thought.

However, if thought sounds like more effort than you care to make in the dog-day heat of August, don't let that keep you away. Malice zings along, mixing the political and the personal in a seamless, thoroughly entertaining whole. It's funny. It's believable. It's appalling. It's the Louisiana Hayride, 2001.

The Red Noses Theatre company, under the direction of Buzz Podewell, brings these profane, Machiavellian, but by no means despicable characters to life with intelligence and flair. Clare Moncrief is at the top of her form as the fierce, charismatic Maggie McCovey, who has just captained her brother's campaign through the most treacherous of seas. Tony Molina, stretching a bit from the roles he's usually given, shows new complexities as the many-faceted Ron Morely, state senator and heir to a funeral home dynasty. Danny Bowen gives us a suave, astute Pat Lyles, councilman-at-large and old political pro. Karen Kaia Livers brings an appealing, earthy gusto to Maeve Davis Reynolds, tax assessor and cunning ally to the McCovey clan. Autumn Knight deftly conveys both the bitchy exterior and the wounded spirit of Claudette Suchand, a McCovey organizer.

Mark McLaughlin's Carol Quinn -- a one-time Ward Heeler reduced to driving the candidate's car -- has a kind of broken, defeated grandeur; we sense what has been lost. Eddie Collins is effective as Herb Ralph, a lawyer pressed into unwilling political service, because of the smoldering resentment of the McCovey headquarters chief. And Gavin Mahlie, as that same troubled headquarters chief, gives us an ambitious man who trusts no one -- a fatal flaw in a world where there is so much duplicity, some highly selective form of trust is crucial to survival.

The staging in the full round is particularly strong, as it makes us all flies on the wall, as it were, in the hidden sanctums of the deal. Joan Elizabeth Long's gray-tone set is serviceable and evokes the aura of temporary offices, Styrofoam coffee cups and Xerox hand-outs.

With Malice Towards All is a limited run. And it's been selling out. Reserve a ticket now.

click to enlarge Maggie McCovey (Clare Moncrief) and Claudette Suchand (Autumn Knight) navigate the murky ethical waters of politics in Jim Fitzmorris' With Malice Towards All.
  • Maggie McCovey (Clare Moncrief) and Claudette Suchand (Autumn Knight) navigate the murky ethical waters of politics in Jim Fitzmorris' With Malice Towards All.
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