Fear Itself (Secrets of the White House)
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 10, 2005
So much can be—and needs to be—said about the state of our very troubled union these days; I was hoping that Jean-Claude van Itallie—whose activist theatrical voice was one of the seminal ones in the Vietnam War era—might be just the playwright to say some of it. Alas, his new political protest piece Fear Itself is a disappointment, providing neither the razor-sharp satirical edge nor the well-articulated political perspective that can rouse an audience to action or even ardor.
Billed as a "farcical tragedy," Fear Itself strikes me mostly as allegory (at least the parts of it that are most successful do). Broad, parodic scenes depicting "Emperor Butch" and his cabinet "General Gin Rummy," "General Pow Pow," and "General Attorney Sing-Sing" are interspersed with segments set on a stark battlefield where Butch's children Adam, Eve, and Sergeant Junior fight and, in two cases, die in an apocalyptic war. The "Eve" character has real bite: she's presented at first as a kind of Cassandra, seeing a dying world that no one will believe in. Near the end of the show, a banner is unfurled bearing the message "Mission Accomplished" at the rear of the stage, with the bloodied and spent Adam and Eve arrayed on either side of it—it's the one really potent image in the piece, decrying the wastefulness of our current and past wars with silent eloquence.
But most of Fear Itself amounts to just so much haranguing and wheel-spinning. Emperor Butch is presented as spoiled, foxy, not-too-bright; under the thumbs of his "Big Mommy" (a Barbara Bush-like portrait, swathed in the inevitable pearl necklace, hangs above Butch's throne) and his advisor Rover (a witty touch: Karl Rove as canine; but whose tail wags what dog?); tenacious and imperial and uninformed; determined to wage war against the guy who defeated his Daddy instead of the (presumably) real bad guys who attacked his empire. There's nothing here that any critic of the current administration is going to argue with, but by the same token, there's nothing here that's terribly new or interesting either. Nothing dates as quickly as satire: Fear Itself fizzles because it's badly out of touch with current events (notice the presence of both a Powell and an Ashcroft stand-in in the character list, for example)—almost everything here is an echo rather than an urgent call. Van Itallie is angry, but his outrage seems focused on old news.
The production is directed listlessly by George Ferencz (it's possible that some of the low energy at the performance reviewed was due to a lack of preparedness, so maybe that's been resolved). The actors mostly seem to be going through the motions of their caricature/characters, with the notable exceptions of Jenne Vath as Eve, who is never less than compelling in a very small role, and Ken Pearlstein, who goes beyond Saturday Night Live-style impersonation to really attempt an exploration of what makes Emperor Butch tick. The script just doesn't give him the opportunities he deserves.
There will be, I hope, more theatre that will help us articulate how we feel about what's happened to our country and where it's going as we head toward the midterm election year. There's certainly enough material out there to feed theatre artists of any and all political persuasions. We'll keep on the lookout...