In Gore Vidal’s rarely mounted sci-fi, political satire, well-timed pyrotechnics have to run as smoothly as last week’s shuttle launch, and actors must have rapid-fire, elegant delivery. The American Century Theater skillfully rises to the challenge with an uplifting show that’s refreshing and fun, even in its darker moments.
Subtitled “A Comedy Akin to Vaudeville,” Visit to a Small Planet lampoons post-W.W.II Cold War fears of Communist take-overs during the McCarthy era. Yet TACT’s staging seems as relevant today as in 1957 when it was adapted from television for Broadway.
In this well-rehearsed enactment, director Rip Claassen establishes his signature style with a flair for fast pacing and vaudevillian theatrics. And that’s good. Playwright Vidal, also a renowned essayist and novelist, is a ventriloquist who channels his ideas through his characters. And although some of the characters are stereotypes, Claassen brings them vividly to life by giving his acting ensemble tons of stage business. Attention to detail captures the mood of the period down to authentic 1958 Life magazines on the coffee table. Technical backup is essential and an efficient techie team makes the theatrics work like a fantastic dream.
Designer Noel Greer’s expansive, parallel middle-class set embraces three playing areas — a study, the living room, and the terrace to the rose garden. Dramatic strobe effects for the flying saucer landing and rosy-glow lighting changes, designed by Micah Stromberg, and supportive sounds by Ed Moser add an undercurrent of eeriness. But the hanging tree swing (not asked for in the script) introduces down-to-earth reality and helps launch what could be a dull, inert love scene between Ellen Spelding (a vivacious Megan Graves) and Conrad Mayberry (Noah Bird), into a romantic, physically cozy chat.
But this satire has dark, scathing undertones and that’s the job for Bruce Alan Rauscher as Kreton who is working out his plans for taking over the world until Delton 4 (Tamra Lynn Testerman), in an aside, reveals a surprising alternative at the end.
Bored with his distant planet, endowed with a technology far more advanced than ours, where immortality, perfection and peace co-exist, Kreton has adopted earth as a hobby to escape his intergalactic ennui. And that’s dangerous. The visitor loves violence and has decided to time-and-space travel to earth to experience a place where the inhabitants do war “really well.” Although this extraterrestrial, dressed as a Confederate gentleman expects the Battle of Bull Run, the first big battle of the American Civil War in 1861, he lands 100 years late in Manassas, Virginia in 1958. (His spaceship miscalculated.)
The start-up sounds innocent enough. Rauscher’s boyish, fun-loving, spontaneous moment-to-moment portrayal creates edginess. In his first entrance, the outer-space immigrant caresses furniture, as if testing reality, and reacts with awe. For a dizzying second, Kreton spins seated in the swivel office chair in the study. You never know what’s next. With a maniacal glint in his eye, and a hint of a British accent (Cyril Ritchard of Captain Hook fame originated the role on Broadway), Rauscher has great fun, as Kreton convinces his skeptical hosts, General Tom Powers (John Tweel), TV talking-head, Roger Speldman (Steve Lebens) and his wife Reba (Kelly Cronenberg), that he is from a superior culture. Reba, played by Cronenberg as a ditzy mother, dressed in a fifyish ballerina skirt, almost swoons into a clinch with Kreton on the wing-back sofa. On the surface the visitor is a harmless, devastating charmer, who is here to see earthlings as they are; not as he might want them to be. Although his words sound scary, his fussiness about his clothes remains disarmingly gentle.
But this disappointed guest will make his own war. Kreton with his unsettling mind-reading and levitating powers really is the cause of the dysfunctional family’s friction that rises to a national level. Everybody is wrapped up in their own self-centered universe. So the space traveller invades private thoughts, at first causing comic and embarrassing moments for the Army Aide (Brendan A. Haley) and his loud-mouthed commanding officer, General Powers. Even the cat gets her mind scanned, all light-hearted fun. The delightfully convincing enactment of Rauscher conversing with a mechanized, twitchy- earred white cat prop (not a puppet), plays really well and leads logically into an invasion of Ellen’s mind.
Kreton wants to watch her animalistic, human love making because on his planet where no one dies, there is no need for procreation or sex. Americans “revel in public slaughter,” broadcasting it; “yet you make love secretly, guiltily and with remorse….too delicious.” We have to remember that this is the fifties, the time when young unmarrieds staying overnight in a motel still had shock value.
Speldman, “America’s least accurate newsman,” solidly played by Steve Lebens, the narcissistic television talking head, in a sense is a villain who fans the flames of the arms race into total war. The newsman who never gets his facts right represents the growing importance of television in daily life and Vidal’s disdain, even dread of the media. Speldman’s telecast hypes the story that the Russians possess an “anti-gravity force” that is causing weaponry to levitate. Of course, all this Red Scare stuff really evolved out of Kreton’s parlor games of floating vases. His secret powers also caused rifles and weaponry to lift off the ground worldwide. In one important, climactic scene, Kreton aims his fingers and blows up the globe in the study.
Actor John Tweel as the warmongering Tom Powers of the Laundry Corps could flavor his role with more menace. He is too Mr. Nice Guy to be one-hundred percent convincing as the paranoid brigadier general. But that said, Powers is actually a dove underneath his soldierly strut, as he reveals in his anti-war speech that seems to foreshadow Eisenhower’s 1961 warning about the military-industrial complex. In the play, Powers says: “…Combat generals, that’s all you’ll read about, tearing around in tanks and planes, spending money like water.” We can imagine Vidal speaking to us today – his commentary is painfully relevant.
Overall, the cast is a joy to watch as Rauscher develops a multi-dimensional Kreton. A visual costuming joke conveys the idea that deep down he wants to play war games and blow up the world just for the hell of it. The unflappable alien changes into a Confederate general’s uniform and dons thick sunglasses and gloves (costumes by Cecelia Albert andRosalie Ferris) , into a clone of Kubrick’s mad scientist, Dr. Strangelove, (the character from the movie Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb), who loves H-bombs and mass destruction. Sometimes a director’s added sight gag is worth a thousand words.
It’s too bad that Jerry Lewis in his 1960 slapstick flop took the subtitle literally. Visit to a Small Planet, the original play by Gore Vidal, the master wordsmith, is a tightly written, intellectually challenging treasure, a worthy but neglected American play.
Visit to a Small Planet
by Gore Vidal
Directed by Rip Claassen
Produced by The American Century Theater
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes including two intermissions for this three-act play.
John Glass . DramaUrge