About twenty years ago, a James Caan-Mandy Patinkin movie called Alien Nation imagined the existence of a drug which enabled – indeed, compelled – users to work endless hours under subhuman conditions, cheerfully. It was addictive, both to the users and to those who took advantage of their supernal efforts. In the movie, decent men and women joined forces to destroy this drug.
As Irene Wurzel’s perceptive drama In the Mood points out, based on what we know of mania, that’s not the way things would go in real life.
Neil Workman (Christopher Lane), Undersecretary for Political Affairs for the Department of State, is a man of enormous accomplishment and even grander ambition. He is an expert on the Constitution, happily married to an accomplished artist (Mary Beth Wise). He is the protégé to the Secretary of State (Leo Erickson) and his squash partner is the President of the United States.
He is also certifiably manic. As Lane plays it, mania is a lovely state, in which the air is sweeter and colors enhanced. His desire for his lovely, noble wife quickens his step and freshens his demeanor. His plumy drawl, drawn from Eastern finishing schools and Ivy League doctoral studies, grows even broader. The world and all its problems seems no more formidable than a New York Times crossword puzzle.
And then there is over the top. When Neil goes over the top, he helps to overthrow governments, writes new constitutions, and makes outlandish promises to rebel forces. That, as we say, exceeds his pay grade and he is obliged to go home and take medicine.
The ostensible focus of In the Mood is Neil’s long-suffering wife, Jennifer, whose job it is to somehow make sense out of her brilliant husband’s mood swings. She never succeeds: notwithstanding her intelligence, determination, and the great love she bears her husband, his illness moves him to humiliate her constantly, and things do not end up well.
And yet…how hard did she try? “I want you to freeze just this way,” she tells Neil shortly after he gives up the powerful psychotropic drug prescribed for him after the government overthrow matter. Though he doesn’t say it, this is also the view of Neil’s boss, the Secretary and State, and probably the view of Neil’s squash partner as well. Manic Neil is vigorous, funny, generous, hard-working, and loving. Medicated Neil sat around watching TiVoed NFL games.
Everyone – with the possible exception of Neil’s truth-telling son, Josh (Tim Speers) – helps to push Neil towards the manic hell that awaits him. Neil’s cheerfully oblivious mother (Halo Wines) manages to manufacture excuses for Neil’s behavior; and Neil’s young assistant Annette (Therese Barbato) is in awe or in heat or both. With all this encouragement can it be any wonder that Neil, who loves to make people happy, pushes himself until he finally explodes in a supernova of lethal mania?
Wurzel, working for the first time without her collaborator, Charlotte Anker, has developed a script which demonstrates considerable familiarity with both mania and high-stakes bureaucratic brinksmanship. The tension between Erickson and Lane in their political confrontations is palpable. Similarly, Wise’s humiliation in the face of her husband’s drunken performance at a dinner is so acute that it leaps out at the audience – despite the fact that she doesn’t say a word.
This is not to say that the script is finished. Wurzel has some unfortunate high-context dialogue between Neil and Jennifer, clearly designed to drive out exposition. Wise, an excellent actress, struggles with these lines. They are unnecessary, since Wurzel has Jennifer elsewhere speaking directly to the audience. With minor revisions, Wurzel will have a first-rate show.
She already has a first-rate production. Lane, in a role any actor would love to have, is breathtaking. It is a dangerous thing to write a character as brilliant and charismatic as Neil is supposed to be, since there are a limited number of actors who can play them authentically. Lane is one of them. His Neil was perfectly modulated; it was possible to evaluate immediately the degree to which he was afflicted with mania simply by his stance, his walk, and his first few words. When he was on medication – the only time he appeared to be anything close to depressed – he was still wholly himself, slowed down and sad.
Wise has a more difficult role: she needs to make herself interesting even though she must be strong, noble, and responsible throughout. Such a character can become annoying after a while, but Wise gives a textured performance and, despite her nobility, becomes a sympathetic character by the end.
The supporting cast is also strong – particularly Wines, who resisted every temptation to make her character a caricature and instead gave us someone so complex and lucid that she became a lens through which the actions of the other characters could be understood. Erickson and director Jim Petosa made the interesting choice to play the Secretary of State as a bit of a creep; full of old-world obsequy, he seems to be unable to resist touching Jennifer every time he’s alone in the room with her.
Olney continues to have some of the best production values in Washington-area theater. Scenic Designer Milagros Ponce de Leon’s artist’s studio – the venue for the entire play – is spot-on, and the immense sculptor’s stone which hangs over the play is a reminder of the heavy weight over the characters. Jarett Pisani’s sound design is again excellent, and Donald Edmund Thomas’ lighting design is magnificent. Thomas is able to denote radical changes in time and place on a single-scene set with just a few subtle changes in light. Donald Edmund Thomas, you the man!
In the Mood plays at the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab of Olney Theatre Center (2001 Olney-Sandy Springs Road, Olney, MD) Tuesdays through Sundays until September 24. Tuesdays and Sundays are at 7.45 p.m., except for September 24, when there is no evening show. Wednesdays through Saturdays are at 8.15. There are, in addition, 2.15 matinees on Saturdays, Sundays and on Thursday, September 21. Tickets are $34-$44. To order, call 301.924.3400 or visit http://www.olneytheatre.org/.