nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
July 15, 2007
Nearly six years after the Patriot Act was first pushed into law by large margins of both houses of Congress, Emerge Theater Company from New Brunswick, New Jersey brings us Patriot Acts, a play that is part farce, part satire, and part detective story, but which manages to fall flat in almost every way.
Act One introduces us to two bumbling and incompetent FBI agents named Stan and Oliver who are trying to fill their quotas of arrests under the Patriot Act after being berated by their chief in the bureau—an agent whose speech patterns and Texan drawl sound suspiciously like our current president's. To fill this quota, the pair drags in a number of dubious candidates for prosecution, including a British journalist of Saudi Arabian descent, a Muslim cell phone vendor, a stripper who fulfills her artistic aspirations by painting national landmarks, and a high school teacher who took too many pictures on a class trip to the Empire State Building.
An announcement after the first act indicates that all of these vignettes are based on real cases involving investigations under the Patriot Act (though to what extent is unclear), and the piece would seem to be set up as a biting satire about the dangers to civil liberties that the Patriot Act poses. Unfortunately, Patriot Acts lacks the requisite teeth, and its erratic jabs—which are largely delivered by unbelievable characters at improbable times in brief polemics by those being detained—amount to a series of potshots that are not convincingly argued or tied together into any sort of cogent critique.
But it is in the second act where Patriot Acts gets completely unhinged, veering off into an unpredictable—and entirely inexplicable—direction. Shifting gears completely, the second act begins with federal agents knocking at the door of two unsuspecting college students, and it then unfolds into a bizarre and juvenile mystery involving a spiteful ex-boyfriend and a high stakes professional poker game that is clumsily contrived and poorly executed—including an utterly needless film segment. Notwithstanding a random and mystifying revelation at the end of the play that superficially ties the two acts together, how this story has any real bearing on the Patriot Act—or where playwright Marshall Jones III is going with all of this—is lost on me.
What is also lost on me is the humor—virtually every joke in Patriot Acts lands with a thud. Often it's hard to tell where the joke begins or where the punchline is supposed to be. With the more painful moments one knows exactly where the joke is trying to go, and it becomes akin to watching a would-be turn-of-the-century aviator attach wings to his bicycle and pedal off a bridge. Director Rico Rosetti can't be expected to make this contraption fly, but he still manages to make matters worse by pedaling this bicycle at half speed, and the show comes to many long and grinding halts as actors drag large—and largely unnecessary - pieces of furniture onto the stage during the show's too-frequent scene changes, at one point driving two audience members out of their seats to avoid getting hit by a bed.
Patriot Acts does provide some cautionary warnings as to the ease and scope with which the government can detain foreign residents and American citizens alike, but falls far short of offering any sort of insight. The large cast of Patriot Acts navigates through this material with varying degrees of success, though it would be difficult to hold any actor accountable for getting lost in this mess. Paul O'Connor perhaps manages the best in his three roles, miraculously creating three sharp and memorable performances. I hope to see him—and the rest of the cast—in other things in the future.