Just when you thought that scandalous political agendas were restricted to CNN’s 24-hour news cycle, along comes An American Daughter, Wendy Wasserstein’s 1997 play about a woman’s nomination as surgeon general and the threats her past play on her potential political appointment. In our current culture of alternative facts, fake news, and spin doctors, this Tony Award-winning play is back in fashion 20 years after its debut. Fortunately for us, Wendy Wasserstein’s witty repartee, unlike leg warmers and jumpsuits, never go out of style.
The show opens with Lyssa Dent Hughes (played with tight-wadded aplomb by Kiersten Harris) watching her own televised speech on TV. Immediately, I was impressed with Director Bruce Hirsch’s creative use of space. The stage at the Arts Barn is not suited for a bulky, 90s era television downstage; it would block sight lines in the first 2 rows. Hirsch made a simple adjustment, which had Harris holding a remote control while watching herself. This allows the audience to know exactly what Harris is doing without compromising his audience’s viewing pleasure. Sometimes, the simplest fix can solve a complexity of problems.
This production is like a fine wine: it gets better with age and has a sophisticated palate. The energy level is a bit low at the start of the show, as if the actors are feeling each other out. It’s when Lyssa and her oldest friend, Dr. Judith (not Judy, don’t even try it) B. Kaufman, an African American Jew who casts her sins out into the Potomac, start singing together on the couch that the familiarity and history come alive.
With each passing scene, the comfort level and backstory become more rich and layered, resulting in many warm moments in which the audience gets caught up in memories as if they were appearing on a slide show behind the actors’ heads.
It’s harder than it looks to interestingly portray a character who’s deemed “boring” more than once in the show, but Harris does just that. Her inner tension is like a tightly wound ball of yarn that begins to unravel as characters come in and pull at her strings. Lyssa internalizes a lot of her feelings because she’s the good girl who stays contained and classy; she’s had a lot of practice with handshakes and smiles as a senator’s daughter. The audience can feel Harris trying to bury Lyssa’s inner voice, which is screaming at everyone to get their heads out of their keisters and leave her alone. She is classy, fierce, vulnerable, resigned, worried, caring, frigid and feisty.
The other characters bring their own schtick with them, encircling Lyssa in a ring of agendas. Notably, Michael Abendshein’s Morrow is everything that Lyssa isn’t: blunt, flamboyant, right wing, gay, and a “last word” kind of guy. His utter loneliness lies underneath the wit, barbs, and flippant attitude about hanging out with his best friend, and Abendshien does not try to evoke reactions. Kudos go to Hirsch for casting against type, because Abendshein makes it work and it enhances our interest.
Hirsch’s non-typecasting works well with Lyssa’s anti-establishment, agnostic Jewish husband, played with measured sincerity and repression by Bob Harbaum. His scene with Quincy Quince (portrayed by the fabulous Alexis Amarante) is ripe with sexual tension, confusion, and don’t forget, sexual tension. Amarante also crackles with Harris as she simultaneously shames and admires her.
Another standout is Stuart Rick as Senator Alan Hughes, a conservative lifer who never crosses the line in either direction. He supports and loves his daughter unconditionally yet does not share her liberal political views. Again, Rick succeeds at keeping his character supremely watchable without one outburst, moment of catharsis, or sudden revelation. His marriage to Charlotte “Chubby” Hughes, played by the hilarious and slight Carole Preston, lends some great tension breakers. When they sing a Dinah Shore song to punctuate a story, it is reminiscent of every head in the hands moment when your parents make you want to sink into the floor.
Brandie Peterson as Dr. Judith brings the audience an angry, brilliant, spiritual, and lonely woman who feels most at home with her oldest friend. Her characterization is grounded and likeable, and her tender relationship with Morrow has us wishing that the latter isn’t gay.
Zack Walsh arrives with prepubescent, sycophantic flair as PR whiz kid Billy Robbins, garnering laughs with his extra wink-winks and “I got ya covered” air gun. Billy walks in an exaggerated strut, as if he is trying to act like a spin doctor rather than be one, which nails this character and makes this virtual cameo most memorable.
Hirsch creates a wonderful climactic scene in which Timber Tucker (Tom Moore, who is most effective in his salacious, Bill O’Reilly interview scenes) interviews both Dr. Judith and Lyssa in the latter’s living room (beautifully constructed and accessorized by this talented production team). Members of the show’s crew come on stage as members of Tucker’s crew, with Walsh doubling as the young boom mic operator in a grungy wool hat. He joins lighting op Mark Shullenbarger and sound op Matthew Datcher as the two cameramen, with the three of them triangulating around the interview space.
Admittedly, this is not Wasserstein’s tightest script. She missed some connections and created some confusion in ways that, likely, could have been avoided.
Montgomery Playhouse, in partnership with the City of Gaithersburg’s Arts on the Green, brings An American Daughter successfully to the stage with a satisfying and dignified ending that would put CNN and other 24-hour news channels out of business. After all, as Timber Tucker would say, “Scandal is the nature of the business.”
Running Time: Two and a half hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
An American Daughter plays through May 28, 2017, at The Montgomery Playhouse and Arts on the Green performing at The Gaithersburg Arts Barn – 311 Kent Square Road, in Gaithersburg, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 258-6394, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.
Review #1: ‘An American Daughter’ at Montgomery Playhouse and Arts on the Green by Mark Ludder.