Chicago Theatre Review
Trimming the Fat
Both Your Houses – Remy Bumppo
More timely than a Tea Party rally, Maxwell Anderson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that takes a hard look at how Congress really works is kicking off Remy Bumppo’s 18th season. The prolific playwright, screenwriter and lyricist wrote his play back in 1933, but it still resonates today with its portrayal of biased Congressional committees, special privileges and favoritism, graft and corruption. It also tiptoes around issues like the government attempting to control the reproductive lives of women, another issue recently in today’s news. It just goes to show that everyone old is new again.
In Anderson’s award-winning play Alan McClean, a newly elected member of Congress, who formerly taught school in Nevada, is trying to bring honesty and integrity back to the government. Alan thinks that being true to his constituents doesn’t mean padding the budget with self-serving items aimed at his own wants and needs; he’s bent on trimming the unnecessary fat in a way that may, unfortunately, jeopardize the well-being of Simeon Gray, the head of the committee and the father of his new sweetheart, Marjorie. Where will Alan place his allegiance and what will be the end results?
Returning to the theatre where he was the founding artistic director, James Bohnen takes up the reins to direct this seldom-produced play. Set upon Yu Shibagaki’s wonderfully polished-looking, versatile set that transforms before audience’s eyes into a completely different locale, Bohnen guides his cast of 14 talented actors with humor and determination. Brisk pacing keeps Anderson’s play engaging and moving along as the young freshman Congressman finds a helpful hand and mentor in the person of Greta “Bus” Nillson. Miss Nillson, recently relieved of her long-time govenmental position, is ready for a bit of personal revenge. Leading the opposition is senior Congressional member Solomon “Sol” Fitzmaurice who enjoys the confidence that a drink or three provides.
This ensemble includes a group of impressive, talented actors of all ages. Leading the way is Chris Amos in the Jimmy Stewart-like role of Alan. Handsome and likable, Mr. Amos is well-cast as an ethical young Everyman with whom the audience will surely identify. Filled with warmth and sporting an engaging smile, Chris Amos makes a wonderful, strong leading man among a baker’s dozen of talented character actors. Eliza Stoughton as Marjorie Gray is lovely with a strength of character that sets her above that of mere ingenue. Linda Gillum’s “Bus” Nillson is the Rosalind Russell of this cast, all smiles and feisty spit and vinegar, ready and able to meet any challenge that comes her way.
Peter A. Davis brings painful honesty and humanity to his portrayal of Simeon Gray, while David Darlow’s charming scoundrel “Sol” Fitzmaurice, never seen without a flask or cocktail in his hand, makes graft sound like an almost good idea. Joanna Riopelle is every inch the proper, earnest 1930’s lady as Miss McMurtry. Peter Eli Johnson more than meets the challenge of playing two very different roles, secretary Merton and the bullish Ebner. And, avoiding resorting to stereotypes, Jesse Dornan is delightful as southern gentleman Representative Peebles.
Today with Congress continually and deservedly the subject of every comedian’s monologue, Maxwell Anderson’s 1933 dramatic portrayal of American government isn’t that far-fetched. What was once considered fictional fabrication is now, unfortunately, seen as realism. Today the country would welcome a Mr. Smith going to Washington to straighten things out; perhaps a play like this excellent production from Remy Bumppo is the closest we’ll ever get to experiencing a good, thorough housecleaning.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 1-November 9 by Remy Bumppo at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Greenhouse Theater Center box office, by calling 773-404-7336 or by going to www.RemyBumppo.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.