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THE BRITISH are coming, the British are coming... British director Michael Kustow has landed at the American Repertory Theater with a new play by British playwright Charles Wood about the bumbling attempts of an Anglo-American team to shoot a film in Ireland about the American Revolution for the celebration of the American Bicentenial. It's less confusing than it sounds--Has "Washington" Legs? is pure farce with a dark side beneath, but it's too freewheeling to say anything well. The result is a two-hour burlesque show with some long gaps in between moments of high comedy.
Actually, Has "Washington" Legs? seems more like two plays. Act I, which concerns the planning meeting for the movie organized by the Film Institute of the United States and the Film Institute of the United Kingdom and its hapless representative, Joe Veriato, takes a long satirical swipe at the movie industry, with a representative collection of fools: Mickey Boorman and Pat Sligo, two pot-smoking "New Wave" filmmakers from L.A.; Carl Dorf, a self-exiled victim of McCarthyism; Dan Rashur, the wunderkind director with the Colgate smile; Sy Joelmersbagger, a tweedy history professor from Yale; and Sir Flute Parsons, an over-the-hill British screenwriter with a fondness for money and American boys. Wood gives each one his brief theatrical moment and tries to build an act out of a few comic situations (like Joe's constant run-ins with his assistant, Wesley) that can't last very long. He captures the movie jargon well ("be my file, Wes"; "we have to conceptualize a film here") but carries each joke just too far; the action, lacking any internal coherence, degenerates into a string of forced jokes.
Kustow has chosen to stage this at a long table at the front of the stage, keeping our interest with visual mayhem but accentuating the fragmentary nature of the dialogue. Stephen Rowe and Tony Shalhoub, as Joe and Wes, try mightily to keep things going, but with little success. Some awkward pace changes contribute to the difficulty, and the act sags until Frederick Neumann, as the John Huston-like director John Bean, takes things over. Neumann shines as the horny, hearty old American ("It's a simple name--I am a simple man.") whose vision of the revolution comprises mostly blood and tits; his prostrated plea for directorship of the film salvages the first act. Here, too, we learn the significance of the weighty title: "Washington" is to be the name of the film, and "has it legs?" is movie parlance for "will it run?"
THE SECOND ACT seems more like the play Wood wanted to write. Art fades into reality during the first day of filming (in Ireland, with 300 Irish extras as American and British soldiers), and chaos erupts. The film troops, sleeping in tents, are restless, and there is a rumor that Bean will use real bullets in the filming. The Cockney crew members, led by the gaffer, threaten a workers' revolt against Bean-cum-Washington, but they hold together to film the British charge up Bunker Hill--hilariously staged, dummies and all. But they can't hold out, and the turncoat Wes, convinced that "Washington" will be a disaster, finally stops the action with the help of some redcoat extras. John Bean is accidentally bayonetted by his gaffer, and as he dies the directorship is passed on to blue-eyed, mindless Dan, squinting bravely into the spotlight.
It's all jolly good fun, with some wonderful parody of Bunker Hill and American moviedom. But there's a bitter edge beneath the verbal byplay, a sardonic vision reminiscent of Catch-22. If Wood disrupts the humor and flow with the prolonged dispute between the workers and Bean, it's because he has a point to make. War or moviemaking is nothing but a chaotic nightmare; and while some madman director-general barks orders from a crane, several hundred lowly paid extras, be they Irish soldiers in the British Army in 1775 or Irish extras in a British movie in 1976, run around and get shot.
The connection may seem far-fetched, but since Wood spent five years in the British army and worked on several films (including The Charge of the Light Brigade), I'll take his word for it. Thus the best moment in Act Two is a poignant intermezzo where on a darkened stage, the makeup girl swabs blood off fallen extras to the strains of a soldier's ballad. If there's anything funny about this, it is the cynical vision of a survivor who sees it all as a black farce. As Wood writes in the program notes, "there is something that is proof against courage, against planning, against tradition. It is, I suppose, simple 'cussedness'..."
Of "cussedness" we get plenty--a freewheeling assortment of burlesque gags and visual stunts. Wood grew up in the world of British music halls, and the influence appears in his predilection for puns, wordplay, and sexual humor (men in drag and a woman, Mary Jane Pendejo--played by Karen MacDonald--as Major Trumbull). This is wonderful entertainment, but it's going nowhere; Wood's view of moviedom--war as a ribald chaos prevents the play from establishing any dramatic focus or momentum, and the act lapses into a number of extraneous routines. It remains a wild burlesque with some high points, some low points, and a lot of aimless running.
LIKE ANY BURLESQUE, Has "Washington" Legs? depends heavily on individual performances and a lot of business. Stephen Rowe, as the hapless Joe Veriato, seems overwrought in the first act, his pained expressions becoming tiresome; as his assistant Wesley, Tony Shalhoub succeeds with less mugging. I also liked Eric Elice as the silent Dan Rashur and Thomas Derrah, as the hipster director Mickey Boorman in the first act and the lost actor in the second half.
Mostly, though, Has "Washington" Legs? happily serves as a vehicle for Frederick Neumann as John Bean and for ART's Jeremy Geidt, as Sir Flute Parsons. Here is Neumann, wrapped in a cloak and his own stoic machismo, surveying the troops at night--"I am afraid, Joe," he says deeply, slowly--and then doubling over in agony when told he cannot have the final cut: "You have cut off my balls, Joe. My Balls!" Here is Geidt, prancing on tiptoes, delivering an hilarious monologue on what America means to him (mostly strapping young boys), and miming his way through Washington's address to his troops. You have to be a die-hard patriot not to love this stuff.
Kustow adds another level to the art-reality question by enclosing the performance within a cinematic framework. Before each act, he places a sound collage of favorite American movies ("We may be rats, we may be crooked, we may be murderers, but we're Americans, Joe!"), before the first act we have movie credits ("Starring Robert Redford as George Washington, Sir Laurence Olivier as General Burgoyne," etc., all to the strains of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man"), and we have a delightful second-act coda with Thomas Derrah delivering a voice-over of a soldier's death for a sequence of the movie. This helps to lessen the play's claim to seriousness and lets it stand as glorified burlesque. Kustow's direction throughout is faithful to Wood's music-hall style, with an unending series of visual gags and (with some noticeable gaps) a fast-paced verbal attack--much of it funny, much of it silly. If you've seen enough Morecambe and Wise or Monty Python, you'll recognize it quickly enough.
For Has "Washington" Legs? has as little to do with American history as the movie within it. Its techniques and its themes are essentially British, and I'm not sure the Brattle St. crowd is any better prepared for this than for Lulu. The best written part of the play, it seems to me, is Sir Flute's second-act monologue (which resembles Tom Stoppard's New-Found Land in a lower comic vein); here Wood seems to be speaking for himself, evoking the romantic America of Paramount and MGM: "You said all that pretentious rights-of-man nonsense, and then you went out and did it." With our hands on our guns and our heads in the sky, one might add. Wood is launching a broadside attack on this mythical America, the only one that many Britons know. It's bound to have less appeal on these shores, but since we have just inaugurated a president whose opinions haven't changed since he twirled guns in second-rate westerns 40 years ago, it may be a message worth noting.
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