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'This Town' Skewers Washington in Cambridge

This Town by Sidney Blumenthal directed by Ron West at the ARCO Forum Oct. 26-27

By Rustin C. Silverstein

It is only fitting that Bob Dole's last minute attempts to save himself politically with a frenzied attack on Clintonian ethics should coincide with the staging of This Town. It is even more fitting that the show should be performed at that last bastion of liberalism, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. While This Town exposes the Washington culture that feeds what Mr. Dole sees as the White House scandal machine, its target is not the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but rather the pack of wolves officially known as the White House Press Corps. Much to the chagrin of Mr. Dole and Clinton-bashers everywhere, This Town ridicules the famous "-gates" of newspaper headlines and Letterman monologues (Travelgate, Filegate, even Nanny-gate). These "scandals" are revealed as nothing more than ridiculous, inconsequential products of journalistic attempts at self-promotion.

This Town is an outrageous and well-constructed political parody by Sidney Blumenthal, the special political correspondent for The New Yorker and long-time Washington observer. But before you race to catch the performance on C-SPAN (where the show will in fact be aired) you must be warned of one thing: this is a play of politicos, by politicos, and for politicos. The Gov Jocks and "in the loop" political junkies among us will chuckle with knowing recognition when faced with Blumenthal's expose of the inner workings of the Washington power game. But after two hours of this brutally honest portrayal of the machinations of the District of Columbia, the apathetic and cynical may only find justification for not caring and not trusting.

This Town revolves around the pursuit of four experienced Washington press hounds of the "big story" in a Clinton-esque White House. They are trailed and ultimately exposed by a reporter from that "other town," New York. Vanity, self-aggrandizement, celebrity ambitions and competitive pressures all propel the Washington journalists to chase unfounded rumors and conspiracies while major issues like nuclear weapons and education are ignored.

The play progresses around the investigation of what the journalists hope is their Holy Grail of a scandal, "Scampergate." Involving the White House dog Scamper, the scandal expands to include all sorts of wrongdoing or "perceptions" of wrongdoing in a ridiculous attempt by the press to uncover something (read: Whitewater). The more the journalists become wrapped up in the scandal, the more they lose sight of its real importance. Despite self-righteous talk about "truth" and "the people's right to know," concerns about agents, public relations, TV appearances and high society inclusion are what truly motivate the journalists. In the end, poetic justice prevails and the sharks in the media get a taste of their own privacy-invading medicine.

The caricatures, settings, and scenarios of This Town are amazingly effective in exposing the flaws of their targets. What is extremely noteworthy about this play is that it is performed in the style of an old-time radio show: the set consists only of four microphones, on which the actors, costumed in regular street clothes, must act their parts using only their voices. Remarkably, in last weekend's performance at the ARCO Forum, the actors succeeded in painting vivid images for the audience's imagination. The removal of the pressure to visually imitate reality makes the parody all the more believable--without visual distractions, listeners can mentally connect the voices with the subjects being caricatured. Also, the radio-style format adapts nicely to the limitations imposed by the small makeshift stage in the cavernous, awkward Forum.

But, like the plot and the humor, the format will only work for the Beltway-savvy. If you haven't seen a White House briefing and aren't familiar with popular press figures, it's hard to play along. Likewise, many of the jokes and comments about various scandals and D.C. high-society may make many feel "out of the loop."

Much of the success of This Town came from a talented cast, which could thrive in a difficult medium. While the whole cast was strong, a few were especially worthy of note. Harvard alum Jon Matthews '84 played a slyly naive New York journalist, with a humor and style that is often believable, though sometimes overdone. John Randolph, of Prizzi's Honor fame, brilliantly portrayed an "authentic," folksy political fossil who "holds court" with wry witticisms and hackneyed observations. Finally, Richard Kind of TV's Spin City and Samantha Bennett colorfully reflected the vanity, insecurity and ambition that consume the reporters and their reporting.

For those in the Washington know, This Town is a funny, poignant commentary on the sorry state of affairs in the press-rooms of our nation's capital. The press will nervously chuckle in self-conscious amusement and politicos will roar with delight. But the Washington outsider who witnesses the absurdity without getting the jokes will best understand This Town as an implicit warning about the corrosive effects of scandal-driven, self-promoting journalism on democratic government.

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