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The System

nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
April 24, 2009

There's a lot of fun to be had in political parody. The sheer buffoonery of familiar figures, mindsets, choices, even words with a sage backdrop of hindsight promises a certain amount of enjoyment. Nic Ularu, author and director of The System, doesn't disappoint. Using songs, original music, and clever props, this play-within-a-play offers sharp pokes at the arrogant attitudes of our government.

The play opens with a rehearsal of a political lampoon, with each character representing a segment of the population. The Liberal divulges to the People that he regards himself and his colleagues as the smart bunch and the People as stupid. After all, he points out, look how many times you have repeatedly put us in office. Asked about the campaign promises, the Liberal responds that they were made only to be elected. They never intended to keep them. The People ponders this with songs of idealism, and becomes aware that he is a victim of his representative's crimes. Subsequently, the Conservative joins them, offended that they have discussed things when he was napping. He dictates that no meetings will henceforth take place during naptime. This rule is the last straw. The People refuse and demand to be heard. During all of this, the players ask for lines, take breaks, make requests of a lazy intern, tolerate the interruptions of the Stage Manager, and wait for the Costume Designer and the Playwright/Director to arrive. Once the latter shows up, they tell him this is not at all what audiences want to see in their theaters and suggest changes for the script. The threat of dismissal reveals that the actors are in this for money, not unlike the politicians in the playlet.

As it turns out, the play within the play is the stronger part. It is tightly written and moves with pace. John-Patrick Driscoll is particularly earnest and gullible as the People in pleading his case. He delivers his songs with ease as does Richard Jennings in the role of the Liberal. Jennings, dressed in top hat and tails, moves with precision and lends credibility to his claims of distinction and class. Additional cast members are Charles Whetzel, who plays the Conservative, and Elisabeth Gray Heard, who portrays the feminist costume designer. Patrick Kelly gives a sufficiently bored interpretation of a slacker Intern, and Paul Kaufmann plays an unappreciated Stage Manager. Andrew Reilly as the Playwright/Director, ultimately and effectively sets the cast right when he reminds them that they are getting paid to be in the parody and that it is his play. Although the material is familiar, it is still enjoyable.

The songs are simple, direct, and funny. And, Ularu makes clever use of props. Driscoll is particularly adept with the mop he hauls around, using it as the mop that it is, as a microphone, and in one clever bit as a standard bearing a flag. Both Jennings and Kelly are wizards with a yo-yo. However, the use of video adds less than it should. Mostly, it provides stills of previous officials in various recent administrations, and those were sometimes blotted out by lighting or glare.

According to program notes, Ularu wrote the play in 2004 and updated it in 2008, which accounts for both the timeliness and perhaps the lack of focus in the play outside the play. The subplots, which include the Intern's determination to find out the size of an average penis, the costume designer's demand that a woman be included in the parody, and the memory of grander roles for both the Liberal and the Conservative, seem weak and the dialog borders on preachy. As precise as the movement is during the play-within-a-play, that's how much it plods along in the play surrounding the parody. At times, it actually comes to a dead halt. At one hour and fifteen minutes, it's not that serious, but it does reveal the need to resurrect the red pencil and, perhaps, a metronome.