Spin has been reviewed in London, Philadelphia, and Boston.
Time Out London
Patrick Marmion — Critic's Choice
Among the many qualities of Robert William Sherwood’s wicked study of American spin doctoring is a grotesque central character and a ball-clenchingly tight scenario to distil the rollicking cynicism. Jerry the anti-hero is a vulgar, cursing beast of a campaign manager who frets over his haemorrhoids, is confounded by a recent blow job from his divorcing wife and fights his opponents (real or imagined) by any sleazy means necessary. Elizabeth, his PA, seeks to keep him calm and off the caffeine, while his presidential candidate Henry boosts his blood pressure by showing signs of thinking. Worse, the blond ambition of Henry’s wife threatens to sink the entire ship of fools.
Sherwood’s drama is a gloriously politically incorrect dissection of misogynistic politics that avoids the trap of becoming misogynistic itself. This is down to Sherwood’s relish for the grubby machinations of party politics and an equal love of avaricious characters in both male and female roles. But most of all is play rejoices in scurrilous Mamet-like dialogue, mixing profanity, obfuscating soundbites and bare-faced mendacity. Wes McBride’s bitty design could do with Sherwood’s finesse, but otherwise John Lawler’s character-led direction is hard to fault. Tara Hugo’s tarnished senatorial wife is a permed and padded viper, while Liz Kettle’s number-crunching PA ensures the action is well lubricated. Margaret Robertson as Jerry’s rival keeps the scandal boiling and Richard Willis as the honest senator has the dapper presence of a Henry Fonda. However, Willis’ senator is more a glove puppet to Neil McCaul’s unsavoury Jerry, who sticks his metaphorical hand up the senator’s ass with the same glee that he munches the half-eaten doughnut in his top drawer. The White Bear must be saluted for staging such work, but it’s surely time for the widely acclaimed author of Thugs, Drinking In Circles and Absolution to take a bigger stage.
What's On London
President Clinton might like to pop into his local Birmingham pub during G7 summits, but Spin is still something of a rarity -- a new play by an American playwright about the presidential election process, premiering in a little pub theatre in Kennington. But as two campaign managers each ruthlessly scheme to have the other’s client removed from the candidate selection ‘primaries’, Robert William Sherwood’s gripping comedy drama instantly reminds us of the backstage machinations in the build-up to the elections for London Mayor. As both these campaigners are battling over candidates from the same (unspecified) party, Sherwood reminds us that all the real damage inflicted upon the likes of Jeffrey Archer and Ken Livingston is due to supposed colleagues on the same side.
Spin is also rare in that it boasts a number of superb performances as good as anything on the West End stage. Neil McCaul is tremendous as the foul-mouthed, battle-hardened campaign manager Jerry, self-professed ruler in the "Kingdom of Bullshit", and he is excellently supported by Liz Kettle’s droll yet super-efficient PA Elizabeth. Set in Jerry’s hotel suite-cum-operations centre, the play begins with their candidate, the vacuous Henry, ahead in the polls, until a visit by Jerry’s rival campaign manager, the equally brazen Mary, throws them into disarray. Has Mary really unearthed some salacious secret in Henry’s wife’s past or is she just bluffing? Jerry must decide whether to continue fighting and face possible defeat, or accept the ignominious role of Vice President for Henry in return for Mary withholding the information from the press. But first he must penetrate another smoke screen -- that surrounding his candidate’s wife, the somewhat formidable Alexandra.
Sherwood’s political thriller cracks along at a terrific pace, peppered on the way with some highly colourful language that would make even David Mamet blanch. He also makes light work of the complex American electoral process. Only in the second half does the pace occasionally flag as some heart-wringing sets in, and the witty one-liners, while always amusing, are often too close to the bone to be really hilarious. Designer Wes McBride’s red, white and blue set convincingly conjures up a make-shift office, and John Lawler’s sure-footed direction draws more good performances from Margaret Robertson as Mary and Richard Willis as Henry. However, Tara Hugo is absolutely sublime as Alexandra. Catching aspects of both Hilary Clinton and Nancy Reagan, Hugo’s finely nuanced, understated performance is astonishingly real. Alexandra may initially appear the biggest monster of them all, but after the barrage of indignities to which she is subjected in Jerry’s pursuit of the truth, she is ultimately the only character we really feel for.
Spin might not teach us anything new but, as with the work of filmmaker Neil In The Company of Men LaBute, the savagery is almost exhilarating. And with such performances this is a must-see.
The Evening Standard
Politics, like comedy, is a matter of timing, and writer Robert William Sherwood is a master. His savage study of lies, damning facts and massaged statistics in a US presidential primary has transferred from the White Bear to the BAC just as politicians across the Atlantic are wrangling for their party’s nominations, using any means necessary.
The mechanics of Sherwood’s plot may be as unreliable as an opinion poll, but his analysis of the dirty, backbiting business of politics is raw, hilarious and right on the money.
Caffeine-fuelled, foul-mouthed campaign manager Jerry (Neil McCaul) has problems. His wife is divorcing him, his candidate has started to think -- shock, horror! -- for himself, and now a scandal surrounding the candidate’s despised wife threatens to erupt.
Aided by his trusty media-manipulator Elizabeth (Liz Kettle), Jerry strives to track down, defuse or spin the story to save his vacuous boss’s career.
The basic premise -- that hugely damaging facts about a potential First Lady could stay hidden so long, even from her husband -- is improbable. But Sherwood’s words fly as fast and as woundingly as bullets, so Spin remains utterly gripping.
John Lawler’s production was a little shaky when I saw it on its first night in its new venue, but it has terrific energy and two coruscating performances.
McCaul and Kettle are a formidable team, brutally pragmatic players in "the kingdom of bullshit and paranoia" that is politics: if I were running for office, I’d want them on my side.
The essentially passive roles of Teflon candidate Henry and his chilly missus Alexandra are harder to pull off, but Richard Willis and Tara Hugo come into their own when discussing the "negative voter connotations" of adultery, abortion and divorce with Jerry. This is a hard, fast and viciously funny work with a flawed story. But as Jerry would no doubt tell you, nothing’s ever perfect, not even presidential candidates.
What hooks you is the sharp and very funny send-up of modern politics; what reels you in is an increasingly taut drama. Robert William Sherwood’s play dishes out plenty of amusing one-liners as we watch spin doctors, fuelled by caffeine and cynicism, fret about polls, focus groups and who is on and off-message. But his play is far more than just an extended skit on political amorality and you quickly find yourself engrossed by a well-acted yarn.
Campaign manager Jerry (Neil McCaul, excellent) has got his candidate, mild-mannered senator Henry, to the verge of becoming his party’s candidate for the US presidency but a scandal from the misty past of his wife, Alexandra (Tara Hugo, whose scenes with McCaul are blistering), threatens to crash the campaign. As Jerry and assistant Elizabeth (Liz Kettle) go into fast spin to fight back, the relationship between Henry and Alex comes under severe pressure. Against this backdrop, Spin keeps its sense of humour but also presents rounded, interesting characters, shot through with profound sadness, in a story which holds you as tightly as a politican grips on to power.
Egotism, ambition, cruelty. You can’t find these traits everywhere, but they’re in hazardously high proportions in campaign offices during the run-up to US presidential elections. Spin, the latest from the White Bear’s Canadian discovery, Robert William Sherwood, doesn’t tell us much about human nature or American politics we didn’t already know, but the way Sherwood conveys a sense of moral values dissipating as fast as cigarette smoke in a hurricane suggests uncommon dramatic flair.
The play opens with a witty, acrid exchange between Jerry and Mary, two campaign managers of rival candidates from the same (unnamed) party, on the eve of a primary. Although Jerry’s client -- Henry -- is leading in the polls, Mary assures him she’s got a story related to Henry’s wife that’s so sleazy he’ll have to pull out of the running.
Eventually, it emerges that the formidable Alexandra does indeed have a "past" -- but what does it tell anyone about either her or her husband now? The biggest laughs are prompted by the brazen cynicism with which Jerry and his unlovely assistant Elizabeth pick over the public implications of each sexual revelation, mindlessly mindful of focus groups. One minute, they’re all optimism ("Alex, can you cry? Don’t worry, we can teach you.") Next, they’re advising divorce as the only sensible career option. Alexandra’s mendacity and culpability is weighed against the opportunism of those around her. What, the play asks, is the value of a political system that can’t acknowledge a person’s ability to change?
John Lawler’s snappy production locates a sliver of humanity in each vile turn. You can almost see the barbs rebound off Neil McCaul’s neolithically thick-skinned Jerry, a political animal with not the vaguest understanding of women -- a deficiency that makes him curiously vulnerable. Liz Kettle is rigid with efficiency as Elizabeth, briefly allowing the façade to cave in with the exhausted recognition that her life is empty. Richard Willis finds a vapid dignity in Henry -- a man who is little more than a haircut in the eyes of his employees -- but it’s Tara Hugo’s creaseless performance as Alexandra that fascinates most: a steely-suited presence whose eyes rather than her replies betray the pain that Margaret Robertson’s serpent-like Mary is wreaking.
The road to the White House is long and winding but, according to writer Robert William Sherwood in his programme notes, the most intriguing aspect of the journey is the series of State elections, or primaries, held to select party candidates. As his play demonstrates, you will find more invectives exchanged between members of the same party than those holding different political views.
Set over the course of an afternoon in the run up to the Iowa primary, and focusing on one team's efforts to brush off last-minute scandal, you sit through this excellent play wondering just who is in control. Is it opposition campaign manager Mary, who has uncovered a bit of dirt on senator Henry's wife? Or Jerry, her opposite number, who has earned his man a seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls? Or Henry himself, who initially seems impervious to the trouble he finds himself in?
What you soon learn, as plans are hatched, threats fired off and ambitions thwarted, is that nothing can be taken at face value -- this is a Hellerian world where naked ambition and misinformation rules, a world whose dictum could be, "Speak first, think later."
It is a captivating spectacle, not just because the suspense is maintained until the end. Sherwood writes dirty, raw dialogue in an unmistakable North American twang.
It is something performers Neil McCaul and Margaret Robertson, as the two campaign managers, launch into with gusto.
Theirs are perhaps the most watchable performances, but there is also good work from Tara Hugo as the wife under scrutiny, Liz Kettle as Jerry's deputy and Richard Willis as the inscrutable politician.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Clifford A. Ridley — Critic's Choice
'Politics is the great enterprise, the climax of all that's worthwhile and exciting in this life. Risk, and the exploitation of others." — The Campaign Manager
"Sometimes I think we just imagine it. What's outside. . . . Sometimes I get this weird feeling. Like everything I believe, everything which I think is true, someone else is making it up." — The Pollster
"I didn't lie. I just didn't finish." — The Candidate's Wife
"I wanted to accomplish something, do something good, but everything I touch corrupts me." — The Candidate
So there you have it: politics as it's practiced in the United States at the dawn of the 21st century. All the cynicism and insularity and reality of it - except there isn't any reality, just perception. "Don't talk to me about what you know," says Jerry, the campaign manager. "I only want to hear what you believe. That is the sum of my morality."
These depressing insights are delivered in Spin, a new play by Robert William Sherwood that opened Wednesday at the Wilma Theater in a crackling production directed by Blanka Zizka. It is a consistently funny play, and, at the end, a profoundly chastening one. Its dialogue, suggesting David Mamet sometimes crossed with a two-hand vaudeville routine, is as quotable as that of any play I've seen in years.
And although it's scarcely a perfect play, it plumbs the heart of presidential politics better than anything I've seen or read since Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, an account that similarly viewed the process through a funhouse mirror that was somehow realer than the presumed reality.
The play takes place in a disheveled hotel room in an unnamed state, where campaign manager Jerry and his pollster, Elizabeth, are just hours away from a debate that should cement a primary campaign in which their candidate, a homespun senator named Henry, leads by 15 percentage points. Now enter Mary, manager of a rival candidate, who gleefully says she has dug up some devastating dirt on Henry's wife, Alexandra. She proposes that Henry should withdraw from the race; if he does, he can have the vice-presidential nomination.
But Mary, whose ruthlessness and foul mouth are every bit Jerry's equal, does not specify what her information is. And so the issue becomes: What does she know, and how does she know it? Does she in fact know anything at all? Most important, does it matter whether such information really exists - or will the mere rumor of its existence be as damaging as the actuality of it?
Because the play is built upon layers of deception, I should say no more, except that Henry and Alexandra are substantially affected by subsequent events while Jerry, Elizabeth and Mary remain locked in their visions of politics as an end in itself. ("Campaigns," Jerry says, "would be perfect if they didn't involve candidates.") But I can say that the performances, by and large, are note-perfect.
As Jerry, manically sweating through unending crises to the constant accompaniment of ringing phones, Adam Grupper is simply astonishing; it's hard to imagine how he can maintain such a level of intensity night after night. As Elizabeth, Jennifer Childs forsakes her customary elfin roles to convincingly play a gutsy, decidedly uncute part that is at once driven and vulnerable. As Alexandra, Barbara Gulan is alternately haughtily chic and down-and-dirty; and as Henry, Steve Brady portrays a simple man without ever condescending to his simplicity.
Only Janis Dardaris, as Mary, disappoints, yet I suspect the problem is in the script: The character's nastiness and vulgarity seem not just overwritten but unnecessary. If the point is that in politics, people count for nothing and message is everything, why trouble to make one messenger so much more hateful than the rest?
There are other writing problems, too: A "what do women want?" theme never really gets developed, and the evening occasionally still seems self-indulgent; it could probably forfeit 10 minutes without losing anything of consequence. All in all, however, Spin is a bracing, original creation - and the final image, which it would be a crime to reveal (but which explains why the set is so strangely removed from the audience), is an absolute stunner.
How dirty can politics get? How much "spinning" really goes on behind the scenes? And to what lengths will political opponents go to reach that ultimate goal: a win?
Those are some of the issues that surface in the jolting, often-shocking U.S. premiere of Robert William Sherwood’s political satire aptly called Spin, on stage at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.
And if raw language, to say nothing of foul ideas, disturbs you mightily, look elsewhere for an evening’s entertainment.
Spin is definitely, absolutely not for the skittish.
The message is delivered early on in the opening scene between sparring political campaign managers that politics is not a pretty business.
Mary (Janis Dardaris), a tough-as-nails campaign manager, presumably has the goods on the wife of the opposing candidate. That means campaign manager Jerry (Adam Grupper) has reason to have several nervous breakdowns before our eyes.
Just how far afield a campaign can go - how caught up in scandal and salaciousness - is at the heart of this brilliant piece of stagecraft.
Yet enclosed within it is such sweeping humor that more often than not, we find ourselves laughing uproariously, not at the terrible treacheries before us, but rather at the foibles of the characters, with Jerry leading the parade. Jerry is that alarming creature who puts the end a cosmic leap ahead of the means. So is Mary. Elizabeth (Jennifer Childs) as Jerry’s right arm/sounding board, still seems to have some semblance of sanity and balance left, but it’s evaporating.
And the candidate himself, the seemingly vapid Henry (Steve Brady), manages to at least mouth ideals, while his wife, Alexandra (Barbara Gulan) , is party Lady Macbeth, part Joan of Arc.
The blurring is entirely intentional and to say more about Alexandra might be to spoil things.
What happens in a single night in a single campaign headquarters is at once chilling, absurd, foolish and, yes, funny. It also is a wrenchingly disturbing portrait of American politics at its down-and-dirty worst.
Sherwood’s message, distilled through unforgettable Jerry, is that no snippet of private life is destined to remain private in the bizarre arena that now is politics, and that we long ago pushed the "spin" envelope too far.
It’s all pretty sobering stuff, underlined by generalized onstage hysteria and the metaphor of shrill and unrelenting ringing phones, most of which go unanswered.
The final scene - again, one it would be unfair to reveal - is downright brilliant in its impact, and as it unfolds, you’ll better understand the whys of the ingenious set created by James Kronzer.
The raw language - the antic acting of the mega-talented Adam Grupper -and the fact this play unfolds before us at the height of the campaign season are reasons enough to commend it.
This is one whose message you may not love - but one you won’t soon forget.
The season is gearing up. Candidates smile ingratiatingly while their handlers sling mud at their opponent and try to maintain control of the mud that's being slung back in return. They'll say anything to win a few points in the polls. Issues are reduced to buzzwords weighted according to their knee-jerk effect on potential voter. Image is everything. And the political pros running the campaigns have such a low opinion voters' intelligence that the process of fooling all the people some of the time seems all too feasible just so long as the ruse only has to hold up until the election is over. It's not about the public good; it's about gaining and maintaining power.
But scary as it all is in the real world as we approach that second Tuesday in November with a torrent of manipulative ads pouring at us from all sides, on stage it makes for damned good entertainment.
As this election year's campaigns grow louder and more unavoidable in their rhetoric, several Philadelphia theaters are quite aware of the background noise as they open their seasons. If the real campaigns are starting to seem a little theatrical themselves, it's a comfort of sorts to see that their contortions can serve as the basis for some genuinely good theater.
Spin, currently playing at Wilma, is a grand example, a very funny comedy about the desperate extremes of ambition and manipulation in the final stretch of a primary campaign. While its humor is often vicious and its subject serious enough to earn a definition of satire, Spin avoids an excess of specific parallels and ops for situations and concerns that are persistently universal.
Robert William Sherwood's play takes place on one very bad day in the life of campaign manager Jerry (Adam Grupper). It's the morning of the last big debate before the primary. National TV. Live. But what's Jerry got to worry about? His candidate is 15 points up in the polls. This close to the primary, nothing can kill their lead.
A sudden visit from the rival's campaign manager throws Jerry off balance. Mary (Janis Dardaris) is just as ruthless and relentless as Jerry, and she's come with something somewhere between an ultimatum and a deal. Hinting that her campaign has uncovered some sort of scandal that would ruin Jerry's candidate, Mary offers him an out: withdraw from the race and she'll guarantee that his guy gets brought on board as the vice presidential running mate. Jerry sees this as an act of desperation on her part, an indirect admission that his win is assured. He's about to dismiss the whole thing when he demands to know what this supposed scandal is. Mary gives him no details and one terrifying word – sex. She then leaves, giving him two hours to talk to his candidate and decide.
That's the play. Jerry has scant time to discover what this supposed story is and whether it's real and then figure out how they're going to handle things. It's a magnificently contrived dramatic crucible.
At Jerry's side is Elizabeth (Jennifer Childs). She's the best numbers person in the country, but she's not nearly so ambitious or unscrupulous as Jerry. Starting to feel the personal cost she's paid for her political career, Elizabeth is able to see the price those around her are going to have to pay. Jerry talks to his candidate, Henry (Steve Brady) and his wife Alexandra (Barbara Gulan), demanding to know what could possibly lurk in their pasts that might spur such a scandal. What didn't they tell him up front?
Things quickly become feral, with accusations flying and revelations redefining allegiances as tempers flare. Sherwood's fine ear for dialogue provides a number of towering rants as well as abundant sparks from flinty exchanges. Those between Grupper's Jerry and Dardaris' Mary are fast and furious, single-syllable sentences thrown back and forth in the tradition of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Clipped, precise and deadly swift, it's verbal handball played with intent to wound. This sort of thing would be exhausting if it extended over an entire evening, but delivered in the measured stretches that director Blanka Zizka uses here, it's a thoroughly entertaining tour de force.
Zizka's cast form a fine ensemble, and the show moves along at a brisk, sometimes breathless pace. Spin provides a welcome chance to laugh in good conscience at a phenomenon that has in the past decade become itself increasing laughable.
Bill Hangley Jr.
Liz is an assistant campaign manager, and we meet her in a half-skewed room that floats in black space like an asteroid in a belt. "Sometimes," she says in a moment of near-defeat, "I wonder if we really know what's out there."
On the surface this question is almost a heresy, considering that Liz has no task but to know. She and her boss Jerry have one function and one function only: know the voters, know what they want to hear, know what their candidate should say, and know that he's going to say it. Winning is their job.
But are winning and knowing the same thing? Spin ultimately suggests they are not. And for all of its political bravado, and outwardly black cynicism about the process by which Americans choose those who manage their nation's resources, the play's most important issues concern not politics but love and trust.
Victory, it suggests, is what we choose to pursue when we give up on knowing.
Written by Englishman Robert William Sherwood, and directed by the Wilma Theater's Blanka Zizka, Spin is set on the stage of electoral manipulation. Its fast-paced, profane and edgy script tells the tale of a ruthless and probably ulcer-ridden campaign manager, Jerry, whose candidate, Henry, stands on the brink of an important primary victory in pursuit of an American presidency. On the day of a critical debate, Jerry his visited by his opponent's equally nasty handler, Mary, who tells him that she's uncovered a crippling scandal concerning Henry's wife Alex. If Henry withdraws, she says, he'll be offered the vice-presidency; if he stays, she'll release the scandal and he'll lose in a landslide. She doesn't tell him what the scandal is, but gives him an hour to decide and exits in a triumphant swirl of malignant joy, leaving what had been a rather happy Jerry boiling with impotent rage.
Thus the play unfolds around these questions: is there in fact a scandal? What? When? With whom? Rumors fly and fragments tumble down like Tetris pieces, but every supposedly completed picture disappears below the horizon to be replaced by yet another uncertainty as Jerry and his assistant Liz struggle to find out what Alexandra did and when she did it.
It is soon evident that no one really knows anything about anybody.
This is an ironically just punishment for Jerry, who justifies his role herding humans by defining them as morons. Say you know something, and Spin's chief spinmeister will tell you you're wrong: "The whole world is filled with dickheads who think they know something." He scripts and sculpts his candidate's every move, replacing what Henry thinks he should think with what Jerry thinks the world's dickheads should think Henry thinks. Jerry's marriage is a bust and his life is a wreck, but it is this not-knowing that he takes as a personal insult from an unjust universe.
Alex is a perfect foil for him: not only does she encourage Henry to go off-script and voice his own ideas (at which Jerry goes berserk: "Since when has Henry started to THINK?"), she herself is a mystery: no one knows where she came from, what she's done, where she went to school, or anything substantive about her. She is powerful and strong-willed, but opaque, and when Jerry and Liz start to dig her past out of her, it becomes clear that not even her own husband knows anything about any part of her but her desire to elevate herself.
In that sense, most of Spin's players suffer from the same disease: they know nothing about themselves other than that they want to win. "Sometimes I think that maybe we just imagine it, what's out there," Liz wonders in frustration. "I don't know who I am. I'm in this room and all I think about is winning." And yet Liz, like Jerry, has no real life. She has no love, she has no place, she lives for the victory but is she a loser? She doesn't know.
And indeed, victory is attainable only because it is measurable: numbers add up, but nothing else does. You can't know if your wife loves you, you can't know if your best friend is lying to you, you can't know if you're good or bad or stupid or a genius, but you can know if you've won.
In one of Spin's more hilarious moments, just after he's been served divorce papers, Jerry tells Liz about a fabulous blow job his wife gave him the previous week. It was great, and totally unexpected, he says, but why did she do it? He just woke up one morning after a perfectly normal ice-cold kissless goodnight and found her down there sucking away. And if that weren't bizarre enough, he says, it's obvious now that she knew that the divorce papers were almost ready. "What was she thinking?" he asks. That he wasn't all bad? That she was happy this job was almost over? Or nothing at all? "I don't understand women." It's an understatement: Jerry understands no one, not even himself.
As a political metaphor, this mystery blow-job is brutally cynical, but hits close to home: during a campaign, the candidate must kneel before the voters, and suck and suck and suck with nothing but our pleasure in mind. Do candidates draw solace even as they humiliate themselves from the fact that as soon as the votes are tallied and the papers served they can abandon us and go on to fuck whomever they please? It's a dark idea, but not groundless, especially in these days when it seems that drawing actual votes seems a formality for candidates whose primary constituents are campaign contributors, not people.
But as a metaphor for people and their relationships, Jerry's sex life is less cynical but more terrible. His relationship with his wife has been deteriorating for thirty years, and for solace he has turned to numbers. Urging Henry to reject love in favor of victory, he describes people as "a bunch of ants building an anthill for one of us to stand on," but in doing so seems less Machiavellian than pathetic.
Indeed, it seems no accident that a major element of the asteroid that is the Spin set is Jerry's bed. Hidden in shadows, but intimately conjoined with his office, it plays no functional role in Spin's development other than to remind us throughout the fruitless pursuit of victory that a private life lies disheveled and waiting in the background, empty and dark.
Sherwood's play, making its American debut at the Wilma, won't give anyone a reason to vote. It does, however, deliver on laughs, satire, and food for thought. His script is richly comic and fast-paced, and if his characters seem contrived at times, he still pulls rugs out from under them all. Adam Grupper (Jerry) and Jennifer Childs (Liz) are wholly convincing as no-bullshit comrades with years in the trenches; they blast through Sherwood's rat-a-tat dialogue with verve and pleasure. Janis Dardaris (Mary) and Steve Brady (Henry) are strong as the implacable enemy and the doomed idealist, respectively. A weak link is Barbara Gulan, whose Alexandra is at times unconvincing, and when it's finally revealed, Sherwood's scandal, while personally shattering, seems less politically apocalyptic than promised.
Nonetheless, Zizka's direction keeps everything clicking until the brutal climax. Spin is an excellent reminder to those who run public races in pursuit of happiness to look within for judgement, or risk drowning in a cacophony of contradictory opinions and meaningless noise.
The Boston Globe
'Spin' is just the ticket in election year
Never mind the high-level pols who tumble for call girls - what if a presidential candidate's wife had actually been one?
That's the provocative possibility that sparks Robert William Sherwood's play "Spin," a 2000 London hit receiving a lively New England premiere under the direction of Zeitgeist Stage Company founder David J. Miller. How his eyes must have lit up when perusing this taut and antic script! The topic couldn't be timelier, and the Spitzer debacle - sympathies to all concerned - just adds further sizzle.
Jerry (Steven Barkhimer), Henry Champlain's harried, caffeine-crazed campaign manager, thinks he can contain or neutralize that shocker - if, in fact, that's what the opponent's emissary, Mary (Elisa MacDonald), is even hinting at. She's purposefully vague, leaving him to twist in the wind - at various points in Barkhimer's marvelously physicalized performance, it's Jerry who's literally spinning, like a ticked-off Rumpelstiltskin - while he tries to figure out just what dirt attaches to the lovely and ultra-proper Alexandra Champlain (Christine Power). She herself is quite the polished pro, evading definitive answers in exactly the manner that Jerry advises that Henry (Peter Brown) adopt when dodging tricky debate questions.
"We've all done things we're ashamed of," Henry rationalizes. Brown plays him overly passive, right up to the breaking point: Some suggestion of smoldering would work better than a foregone air of resignation (feigned or otherwise). Henry and his potential for angst fade to the background, in any case, so frantic are Jerry's efforts to pry a shred of truth out of the candidate's unruffably composed consort. Kudos to costume designer Jenn Martinez for giving Alexandra just the right look (virginal white suit, a tasteful chignon), and even higher praise to Power for diction and deportment that could only have been acquired in a finishing school - of just what sort, we're left to wonder.
Some of the plot twists seem a touch anachronistic, and the pervasive misogyny can be presumed to be endemic to the milieu: No one lights into Alex as viciously as Mary. Top-dog women have to be even tougher than their male counterparts, and MacDonald chomps into this role with palpable relish and panache.
Jerry has a pollster, Elizabeth (Melissa Baroni), on hand to lend moral (immoral?) support in the facade-polishing department; she's also there, structurally, to provide opportunities for exposition. Baroni lends a quick intelligence to the image-fluffing episodes, commending Henry, for instance, for keeping his "hands low"; however, her own gesticulations would benefit from a kibosh on karate-chopping.
What precisely was Alexandra's transgression, and will she find a way to surmount it? We can only hypothesize, but at least we emerge marginally wiser when it comes to the packaging of presidents.
The Patriot Ledger
Playwright Robert William Sherwood is a Canadian, living in London, who turns a sardonic eye on American political shenanigans in “Spin,” subtitled a “Presidential Campaign Comedy,” running at the Boston Center for the Arts. Given Sherwood’s cultural distance, his work is alternately accurate and not – somewhat in the manner of a comic strip. The outlines are correct but the fill-ins are exaggerated.
The tiny but smart Zeitgeist Stage Company has produced the Boston premiere of “Spin” with verve and humor, however, the play itself is rife with problems. For one, the most important character is not the candidate, one Sen. Henry Champlain, a man of few opinions with movie star good looks, but his campaign manager, Jerry, a hyperventilating, paranoid professional who probably loves his work, despite the disclaimers. Another problem is hearing about fascinating characters who never come on stage: Jerry’s soon-to-be ex-wife, and Barney, the thug-like wrangler guarding the door, who doubles as a street corner psychiatrist.
The action proceeds from Jerry’s determination to win at any cost, and let the bodies, including that of the candidate’s wife, Alexandra, fall where they may. Henry is a passive personality, given to introspection, silence, and the occasional comment that he “wants to do good.” Jerry goes off into rants about the intelligence of the voters (low) and the venal quality of all women (high, very high) that are fueled by multiple large cups of coffee lined up on his desk. He’s funny and pathetic at the same time, making one hope that the real-time campaigns are run by more stable characters. However, the suspicion that some aspects of Jerry are not just fiction underlines the play. (Think back on the long history of dirty tricks maneuvered by the folks that run the men and women we’ve elected, or are about to elect.)
As the play begins, Jerry is having a bad day. His wife of 27 years has served him with divorce papers that morning and Mary, the opposing candidate’s campaign manager, has walked into his office to disclose a rumor about Henry’s wife that threatens to blow apart the campaign. Mary has come to make Jerry an offer, couched in gutter-language that matches any insults that he can muster. Jerry can only be calmed by his second in command, Elizabeth, a cool-headed woman chanting the mantra – “the numbers, think about the numbers.” It seems that Henry is 16 points up in the polls, a magic panacea for all Jerry’s ills, but in campaign-speak, ripe for an “October surprise” that will threaten the front-runner.
Director and scene designer David J. Miller has staged the play in the claustrophobic Black Box Theater at the BCA, further emphasizing the lack of oxygen in these campaigns and allowing us a close-up peek at the unfolding events. It seems that Alexandra, the most perfect of campaign wives, indeed, has secrets in her past that she reveals in Kleenex-sopping monologues. But Jerry and Elizabeth are not to be stopped in damage-control, as the action unravels to a “lady or the tiger” inconclusive ending.
Miller has assembled a practically perfect cast, starting with Steven Barkhimer in an award-worthy performance as Jerry, the pit bull campaign manager, who alternately rants or remains ominously quiet while he’s thinking up alternatives. Peter Brown, a matinee idol of an actor, makes Henry into a vacuous man who wishes out loud that he were a grocery store produce clerk rather than perhaps the next president. Christine Power as Alexandra and Elisa MacDonald as Mary are the yin and yang of feminine wiles: the first as the holier-than-thou woman, hiding her past; the other an updated version of Lady Macbeth.
Melissa Baroni as Elizabeth holds the reins of power as the only rational person on stage.
“Spin” had its first productions back in 1998, nearly two political campaigns ago but some things never change. Look for truth among the quips in the play and hope that the nation survives our political process once again in November.
The Boston Phoenix
The spin in Spin is less redolent of the campaign trail (though there is that) than of As the World Turns if the soap’s writer were David Mamet. There is promise in the main character of Robert William Sherwood’s 2000 political satire: a driven pig of a campaign manager whose comfortable lead in the run-up to the New Hampshire primary is threatened by scandal. But the depressive presidential candidate and his waxen “wife with a past” are up to their ears in suds. And that threatens to send the show, which is getting its Boston-area premiere from Zeitgeist Stage Company (at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza through May 10), right down the drain.
Canadian writer Sherwood’s brisk comedy at least starts out running in the right direction. Jerry, the brute, caffeinated, and misogynistic manager of the campaign of a fundamentally decent if malleable US senator 15 points ahead in the polls, is visited by his female counterpart at a rival campaign who alleges knowledge of long-ago scandal involving Jerry’s candidate’s wife. The threat: exposure. The carrot: abandon all hope and accept the VP slot on the other guy’s ticket. Jerry, whose wife should receive sainthood for not having gotten around to divorcing him until this moment, has 90 minutes (delivered in approximately real time, divided by an intermission) to ferret out the facts and engage in the revolutionist activity of the title. No surprise that the truth proves as elusive as it is irrelevant, or that the spin keeps changing directions.
Sherwood’s satire is glib and broad — less so David J. Miller’s production, which is designed to fit in the smaller of the two BCA Plaza theaters, putting the audience right smack in the war room, amid cardboard boxes stuffed with paperwork and a wastebasket overflowing with drained Starbucks cups. At the center of the maelstrom are Jerry — whom Steven Barkhimer imbues with plenty of vicious desperation but not enough manic energy — and his ace pollster, Elizabeth. The two have spent the last eight weeks filing their idealistic candidate down to a pleasantly electable nonentity. Now his groomed and controlling wife has shown up, prodding him toward what seem dangerously like points of view. And as if that weren’t bad enough, she may have “three words: S-E-X” in her past, just waiting to be sprung from there to the headlines.
Sherwood hails from Toronto and lives in London, but most of his plays unfold in America — and are set to American rhythms, in this case Mamet’s. The play’s profane, staccato, absurdist arias seem wrenched from American Buffalo — and they are, along with some casually bulldozing one-liners, the best things in a work whose overstretched premise grows tiresome and whose second act’s veering into marital melodrama takes the bite right out of it. I don’t know that Spin has been essayed since 2000 outings in London and Philadelphia, but it’s easy to understand why Miller thought it pertinent to this high season for political barbecue. You just wish he’d found a sharper skewer.
Feisty Zeitgeist gives the play a good go, all the same. Barkhimer takes the virtuosic if appalling role of Jerry and runs with it — if, with his sleepy-lidded eyes and innate affability, not quite fast enough. Elisa MacDonald attacks with gusto the better-accoutered ruthlessness of opposing campaign manager Mary. As candidate Henry Champlain (“Champlain for Change”), chiseled and silver-haired Peter Brown is well cast, though he makes the melancholic character too hangdog to have gotten beyond the foyer of American politics. As his wife, Alexandra, whose manufactured history melts away but not her sangfroid, Christine Power does a lot with pursed lips and angry eyes. Best is Melissa Baroni, who brings to Elizabeth a sharp, prim femininity that makes her inner aggressor funny and scary at the same time.
Berkshire Fine Arts
"Spin" a two act comedy by Robert William Sherwood is a very clever slice-of-political-life. The playwright has a remarkable ear for the language of campaigns. As a Canadian playwright living in London one has to wonder how he came by it. Unlike Gore Vidal who wrote "The Best Man", he never ran for office. While the satire is a wonderful treat it is comprised, like most of contemporary politics, of tasty but ultimately empty calories. Many will be relieved to know that this play is not a polemic, nor a fable with a lesson to learn. It is simply politics as entertainment. How totally American.
Much of "Spin" is hilarious, with wave after wave of laughter. I loved lines like: "Fanatics don't vote. They shoot people, but they don't vote." When it turns to the scandal du jour, it has elements of a mystery and becomes an intricate political chess game.
The production as directed by David Miller for the Zeitgeist Stage Company is brilliant, edgy, funny, and full of surprises. Miller is one of Boston's best, and his willingness to tackle verboten and unconventional works not only deserves praise but attention as well.
The story. We join the campaign of Henry Champlain (Peter Brown) as it builds toward an important debate and primary. He is 16 points ahead in the polls, largely due to his frenetic campaign manager Jerry (Steven Barkhimer) and pollster Elizabeth (Melissa Baroni). In bursts the opposing campaign manager Mary (Elisa McDonald) with the warning that a scandal of epic proportions is about to destroy their candidate. She only reveals that it involves three letters, S E X. Then she offers them a deal.
The dueling campaign managers let the invective and ultimatums fly with staccato speed and full energy. This is dangerous in a theater as small as the BCA's Black Box, where the audience is never more than a few rows from the actors. There is an incredibly jaw dropping moment when we are so close to the sparring that it feels like we could easily become their next target. The rich language contained so many devastating personal insults that I felt as if I was in the middle of an internet flame war that had come to life.
Such writing and acting made me wonder if the author was channeling David Mamet, and the ensemble on stage that of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, known for its rock and roll style of acting. Only the calm hand of director David Miller kept the repartee from sloshing over the top of the imaginary wall separating audience and performers, and kept the campaign managers from actually grappling on the floor as they exchanged their painful barbs.
Following the exchange it is left to the pollster, Elizabeth to calm down Jerry's caffeine jangled nerves. Soon after we meet Henry Champlain and his wife, Alexandra (Christine Power). He appears to be a hollow human being, mumbling about "doing good" and listening distractedly as Jerry tries to get to the bottom of the rumor. The initially stoic and prim Alexandra begins to unravel as the plot thickens, and by the second act the twists and turns leave you wondering what is the truth and what, indeed, is spin.
The acting is universally superb, with Peter Brown and Christine Power as the candidate and his too-perfect wife evolving from neutral ciphers into real people, or at least as much as they dare let show through their carefully crafted political images. Beyond the sex scandal, another game is being played out as the wife encourages her husband to be more of his real self.
"Since when has Harry started to think?" asks the astonished campaign manager. "We have talk shows for that."
Peter Brown looks every inch the part of a perfect candidate, though the playwright does not give him much of a chance to demonstrate the skills of one. Brown plays him to perfection nevertheless, serious, stoic and careful not to offend anyone. In the second act, Christine Power as the wife gets down into the mud with the rival campaign manager, and bares the pitbull that underlies her once perfect wifely facade.
Elisa McDonald as the opposing campaign manager Mary bobs and weaves as befits a ruthless adversary. This is a role that is done so well I think it alienates just about everyone in the audience. Yet underneath the vitriol I sensed that she was actually trying to find a happy way out for both parties. Without a third act, it is hard to tell where her manipulations might have led the play.
The role of Jerry is a middle-aged actor's dream role, one in which he is given license to chew up the scenery as the deranged campaign manager. The brilliant Steven Barkhimer doesn't just nibble it either, he swallows it whole! From the moment we first meet him until the lights go down two hours later he is in overdrive. His jangled nerves and racing mind combined with a dirty mouth make him the very model of a contemporary political force.
In act two, Barkhimer has a blazingly fast and speedy soliloquy that is delivered without a fumble. To watch his face redden, and his shirt dampen as his harsh words are delivered with rage and revulsion is to be reminded anew of the tremendous skills and deep reservoirs a good actor needs to make a role succeed. Barkhimer wrung every last drop of feeling from his lines, and delivered an actor's tour-de-force. I will remember it for a long time.
Melissa Baroni, the final member of the acting quintet is equally deserving of praise, and her calm characterization of Elizabeth the pollster was the needed antidote to Barkhimer's overwrought Jerry. It made me wonder if the playwright had James Carville and Mary Maitland in mind when he created the roles of the two campaign operatives.
Two other characters are featured in the play, though we never see them. Jerry's wife of many years shows up between acts to deliver divorce papers. Barney, the doorman and bouncer is often mentioned, but never appears either. Their inclusion did little to advance the plot or fill out the characterizations.
The stage design was simple and utilitarian, like so many campaign offices are, with mismatched furniture, overflowing waste baskets and dozens of boxes of files. I did find one design omission distracting. The coffee cups scattered all over the stage clearly had never seen a drop of coffee, nor had the files scattered about ever been handled or read. It is a shame that there is no such thing as "method" set design to make sure every production detail is believable. I have no doubt many authentic and grimy coffee cups were discarded throughout rehearsals only to be replaced by the sterile ones on the set.
The costumes were perfect, they looked so natural I didn't even think of them until now. The lighting, a difficult task in a theater with such a low ceiling, was handled with aplomb.
Finally, when the laughter dies down, and the play nears its ending, Henry Champlain finally picks up the phone that has been ringing, unanswered, throughout most of the play. It is a wrong number.
The play itself ends ambiguously, and I just wish that final phone call had been a final plot turn to wrap up the evening more neatly. In politics as in life there are few perfect endings.