Written by Gore Vidal
Directed by Damon Kiely
At the TimeLine Theater in Chicago
Produced by TimeLine Theatre Company
A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on August 24, 2008
This review contains spoilers.
I have to wonder whether the cleverness of Vidal's play Weekend extends beyond the sparkling dialogue, vivid characters, and crafty maneuvers. Although it does satirize American politics, particularly in the context of 1968, Weekend takes us so deeply into the mockery that it eventually reveals what may be the "necessity" behind the very political machinations that it seems to denounce. In other words, the play may reasonably be said to defend, or vindicate, what it upbraids. But not knowing whether Vidal designed it to do so, I'll ultimately have to bow either to our author's ingenuity or to the wonder of unintended consequences.
In short, Weekend tells the story of Sen. MacGruder, a Republican who intends to announce his candidacy for President in the upcoming election of 1968. His son, however, confounds the senator's plans by returning home from Europe to announce his engagement to a black woman whom he met there. This shocking news, which may bury the senator's political ambitions, launches a sequence of events that expose not only the race- and gender-based prejudices typical of the time, but also paradoxically the paralyzing fear of being called "prejudiced". There's the continual elevation of expediency above ethics, through bribery, blackmail, and subterfuge, all of which we'd expect in the milieu of American politics. But Vidal even throws religious pietism into the mix, teasing us with the possibility of a motivation based on principle, however misguided, over opportunism. Nevertheless, that very pietism ironically turns out to be, in an Aristotelian sense, the efficient cause of MacGruder's mess.
Although the chicanery stands out in strong relief against the idealism of the late 1960s, the cold overarching pragmatism in this play sets its own limits, like a criminal with a conscience. This, the surprises in the plot, and the question or two that Vidal lets dangle, collectively dare us to ask whether Weekend is something other than it seems.
In the leading role of Sen. MacGruder, Terry Hamilton found his character's complexity. His MacGruder pulled strings with the dexterity of a puppeteer, all the while minding his own equilibrium on the thin line between right and wrong. He removed obstacles, small and large, but without the indiscriminacy of a bulldozer, and his ambition was driving without being reckless. Hamilton impressed me the most, however, in his success at carving out MacGruder's sagacity, which was clear in the senator's management of the embarrassing antagonism between what he knew to be the folly of prejudice and what he had to face in the stubborn racism of his constituents. Hamilton's skillful acting gave personality and texture to Vidal's words, along with just enough transparency to afford us a meaningful glimpse into MacGruder's heart and mind.
Janet Ulrich Brooks was at one with her character, the pitiful, confused, prejudiced, and simplistic wife of one Sen. Andrews, a colleague of MacGruder. To say that Mrs. Andrews was the comedy relief would be to belittle her part, although the audience could count on her for a good laugh (and sometimes a guilty laugh, at that). Old habits die hard, they say, and Brooks showed us the death throes of a particularly bad one as Mrs. Andrews, a "true daughter of the Confederacy", stumbled over herself trying to display racial sensitivity after a lifetime of bigotry. Brooks firmly seized on both the paradox and the struggle within her character, in every faux pas, every oblivious indignity, every asinine dictum. Yet, she kept Mrs. Andrews just this side of a hollow stereotype, forcing me to ask whether it's unforgivable to find this sorry woman likable.
Playing the part of MacGruder's prodigal son, Beany MacGruder, Joe Sherman brought out the young man's flippancy, arrogance, and anxiety. Sherman made it easy to recognize uncritical youthful hypocrisy in Beany's rebellion against the materialism of his father's generation and his own plan to wrest more money from him. Nevertheless, his performance was inconsistent, ranging all the way from natural to wooden, as though he wasn't quite ready with an interpretation.
By contrast, Mica Cole played his fiancée, Louise Hampton, confidently. She came across as a strong, smart, but properly feminine black woman of the 1960s who was proud of her heritage but who carried prejudices of her own. Accordingly, Louise was wary of other people's motives until she thought it safe to trust them. Cole recognized her character's multidimensionality, and she delivered her lines to frame Louise as a woman of complexity -- which included the pursuit of her own interests -- rather than as a scheming gold digger whose only purpose in the story is to put the other characters on the defensive. Finally, Cole squeezed the unanswered question about Louise to the last drop of titillation, using her considerable acting skill to create an equivocality that survives long after the curtain falls.
Penny Slusher played Estelle MacGruder, the senator's wife, in such a way that it was hard to know whether to feel sympathy for her. Because her husband was having an affair with politics and with Miss Wilson, the head of his staff, Estelle had grown a thick skin over the years to protect herself from the sting of isolation. The resignation she'd found seemed to insulate her from the fluctuations in her life. Slusher gave us an Estelle who was sweet and sour, warm and cold, sincere and deceitful. To me, furthermore, Slusher imbued an eeriness into her role that put distance between Estelle and a cliché -- as Brooks did, though differently, with Mrs. Andrews.
Disappointingly, Louise's parents, Dr. and Mrs. Hampton, were presented to us as simple cardboard characters. As the good surgeon himself, André Teamer ignored any conceivable nuance and went right for the bombast. Teamer's Dr. Hampton had no depth, but plenty of stilted, boring delivery. Though Teamer may have been trying to create a character of empty pomposity, the result wasn't even believable as a windbag. Mrs. Hampton, played by Joslyn Jones, had somewhat more substance than did her husband, but the effect was nevertheless that of someone feigning cultural refinement, which was just as uncomfortable as it is to hear someone affect Received Pronunication.
And that thought brings me to the MacGruder's butler, Roger. In this part, Sean Nix spoke so preciously that I cringed. His comportment was artificially genteel, his delivery pretentious, and his accent bad. But this laughable affectation did have one helpful effect: it made Roger's puritanism all the more priggish.
Strangely enough, by the end of the play, we have an almost "and-they-all-lived-happily-ever-after" denouement. No, it wasn't exactly a halcyon outcome because compromises had to be made. But it can be argued that the general level of happiness among all parties concerned was markedly higher because of, not in spite of, the senator's shrewd machinations. Consequently, Vidal shows us, whether he meant to do so or not, the inevitability of political maneuvering among human beings, who naturally have conflicting interests, and that the result of that maneuvering, at least in theory, doesn't have to be lopsided. We might say that Vidal used satire to maneuver us through this play. Perhaps Weekend's ostensible purpose was indeed the excoriation of American politics, while its real purpose was something a good deal less revolutionary. Either way, however, the play is just as meaningful in 2008 as it was in 1968, though the particular messages an audience takes away from it today obviously reflect the 40 years of intervening cultural change. One wonders what the messages will be in 2048.