Kathleen Akerley’s Something Past in Front of the Light remains, in my view, the finest original work by a Washington-area playwright not named Posner. She has written other excellent plays – dense, howlingly funny, and wise – as well. This is why – let’s say it without the bark on – Pol Pot & Associates LLP is a crushing disappointment. It is tedious and at points barely coherent, with magical realism sufficient to mar the realism but inadequate to create magic.
From the opening scene, in which Brother Frog (Michael Glenn) belts forth a Stoppard-style monologue about the inherent impossibility of counting things accurately, to the penultimate scene in which a detective (Jonathon Church) argues with one of his suspects about the difference between communitarianism and communism, exchanging papers in the process, Pol Pot bears more of a resemblance to a sampling of college philosophy courses than it does to a play. Moreover, and worse, if there is wisdom to be derived from the play, it is that there is a difference between a community of friends and the Khmer Rouge. I knew that already.
Let me say something as someone whose last play had Dracula as a K Street lobbyist: to enjoy a play, we must accept the playwright’s premise. Here, the premise is that members of a high-powered law firm: two lawyers, Frog and Raven (Chris Davenport); two paralegals, Todd (Daniel Corey) and Mal (Daniel Vito Siefring); the office manager Hector (Michael John Casey) and Fiver, the copy machine operator (Séamus Miller) have decided to chuck their high-pressure, high-paying lifestyles and live simply and communally. Todd becomes an acupuncturist; Mal an auto mechanic; Fiver a fortune teller. Raven continues to practice law, but at a slower pace. Frog teaches. Hector runs the place.
The idea of a commune of legal professionals gives rise to enormous comic possibilities, some of which are manifest here. When they discover that their rent has gone up, they get into a fierce argument – not about how they will respond, but about which method they will choose to decide how to respond. At one point, the law boys try try to move a dead body with their elbows, to avoid fingerprints. When a young woman (Kira Burri) twists her ankle in a hole on the communal house’s lawn (“Trespassing,” Raven points out) Todd warns his housemates against putting ice on her ankle. “Let her put it on herself,” he says. He is worried about liability.
She sues anyway, and for unknown reasons the six tenants, rather than the landlord, are the defendants; moreover, they, rather than an insurer, are conducting the defense themselves. Then, suddenly, shots ring out and the plaintiff is dead. The detective arrives – interrupting a very nice, six part harmony rendition of “Scarborough Fair” – and thereafter questions the members of this improbable commune, one by one and at length.
Curiously, the members of this all-male law firm commune seem almost asexual. Though at least three of the men are in their salad years, apparently no one dates, and there is not a frisson of sexual tension among the members. It is like watching the goings-on in a monastery where no one believes in God.
The play is full of odd incidents that seem less like magical realism and more like non sequiturs. As the victim massages her sprained ankle in our communard’s living room, she utters strange maledictions, often stuttering and making faces while doing so. The day after she is killed – and hauled off to the pathologist – her body inexplicably appears on the kitchen floor and thereafter inexplicably disappears. At one point, the detective tells Hector that his fingerprints appeared on the victim’s body – seemingly irrelevant, since she was killed by a sniper operating out of a tree. Speaking of trees, it appears that the group’s dumbwaiter is the trunk of a tree. A dead bird appears in it, which throws Frog into Queeg-like conniptions.
Oddest of all, it turns out that the real name of one of the characters is Saloth Sar, which was also the real name of the notorious Cambodian war criminal Pol Pot. (The actor playing “Saloth Sar” looks about as Cambodian as Joe Biden). One of Akerley’s purposes, as she explained it in an interview with another publication, was to describe a community where the member’s loyalty to each other might even result in covering up a murder, and trace the slippery slopes to the Cambodian killing fields.
But this is a straw man, and one Akerley knocks down with more vigor than it deserves. Of course there is a difference between the Benedictine Monks and the Hitler Youth, and even if a particular Abbey covered up a crime the difference between that and what happened in Cambodia is one of kind, not degree. What’s more, the fencing which the communards do with the detective seems less motivated out of loyalty than out of a lawyerly sensitivity to the difference between fact and inference.
POL POT & ASSOCIATES, LLP
Closes August 31, 2014
Longacre Lea at
3801 Harewood Road, NE
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $15 – $18
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
The actors do about as well as can be done with the material. I found it much harder to buy the histrionic Frog as a top attorney than I did Raven, who is much closer in character to the good lawyers I have met in my thirty-seven years of practice. This, however, is less a product of Glenn, a good actor, vs. Davenport, also a fine actor, than it is a product of the script. Church is excellent as the detective, and fine in a few other roles. (It is common, of course, to have an actor in multiple roles where a play has a big cast and the producing company has a limited budget. Akerley has one of the characters comment on Church’s recurrence, though – insisting, for example, that the detective is also the victim’s father, which is also a role Church plays. It is another odd touch which does not contribute to the play in any way I can see.)
Miller does a nice job as Fiver, playing a wise fool compellingly. But when we discover, three quarters of the way through the play, that Fiver was considered “special needs” – well, I don’t buy it. He has been to this point too sophisticated in his thought and language to be the person we learn that he is thought to be.
There is occasionally great wit in Pol Pot and beautiful language, and moving scenes – as there are in all of Akerley’s plays. But in this one, it’s the exception, not the rule. As the actors took their final bows, I was reminded of the great Nationals pitcher, Steven Strasburg. Strasburg leads the National League in batters struck out, but he occasionally gives up a lot of runs and is driven out of the box. Strasburg had a terrible day in Atlanta on Friday. Akerley’s day at Catholic’s Callan Hall on Saturday was notso hotso either. Here’s hoping that they both return to their customary brilliance next time out.
Pol Pot & Associates LLP by Kathleen Akerley, who, assisted by Slice Hicks, also directed. Featuring Kira Burri, Michael John Casey, Jonathon Church, Daniel Corey, Chris Davenport, Michael Glenn, Séamus Miller and Daniel Vito Siefring. Costume design by Gail Stewart Beach; lighting design by John Burkland; scenic design by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden and sound design by Neil McFadden.
NOTE: Mr. McFadden did the sound design for my play Dracula . A Love Story produced in this year’s Capital Fringe. This did not influence my review.