Irrational tweetstorms and blatant attacks on our institutions may be the norm in our nation’s capital today, but turn the clock back three decades and the controversies of the day seem almost quaint in comparison:
Collusion with foreign adversaries was unthinkable and conservative ideologues were obsessed with government funding for the provocative creations of artists like Robert Mapplethorpe. Republican politicians could still successfully play both the roles of the Southern gentlemen and aggrieved, if cynical, defenders of moral decency.
This long forgotten “culture war” serves as the backdrop for Rich Orloff’s 1994 comedy “Veronica’s Position,” which opened last weekend at Island City Stage in Wilton Manors.
In the midst of the political machinations, famous film actors—and exes—Veronica Fairchild (Laura Hodos), nervously making her stage debut, and Phillip Wilder (Ben Sandomir) have come to Washington, D.C. for an out-of-town tryout of a Broadway-bound production of “Hedda Gabler.” It’s a convenient engagement for Veronica, who happens to also be dating conservative Republican Sen. Harvey Johnson (Steve Carroll).
If this scenario sounds familiar, it should. The plot and characters are loosely based on the simultaneously steamy and fiery onstage/offstage antics of Elizabeth Taylor and longtime love Richard Burton who reunited for a critically disastrous Broadway production of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” in 1983. Orloff had a friend who worked on that production and whispered the real drama to the playwright years later.
Rounding out Orloff’s cast of characters are the upstart director with a passion for Ibsen, Mallory Dascomb (Christina Groom), Veronica’s omniscient gay assistant, Alan (Stephen Kaiser), and his newest love interest, Ezekiel Barrows North (Jordan Armstrong), a photographer with a penchant for taking artsy photographs of well-endowed penises and petunias.
Orloff’s play is somewhat complicated, even convoluted at times, but director Michael Leeds and his experienced cast manage to keep the pace brisk. The best scenes are those with the entire ensemble assembled and lobbing witty one-liners across the set, an elegant Washington, D.C. hotel suite designed by Natalie Tavares. (Thanks to the girl power anthem-inspired sound design by David Hart, on entering the theater, the set immediately evoked memories of the ultimate ‘90s political comedy, “Murphy Brown.”)
Sandomir often steals the show as the suave Brit and Groom is once again a perky powerhouse with plenty of comedic punch. Carroll is a practical doppelganger for former Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, who passed away last week — oozing with charm that masks the pol’s more nefarious motivations.
If anything, all could camp it up just a bit more. Deep down, Orloff’s play cries out to be just a little more over the top, on the verge of a farce. No slamming doors a la “Boeing Boeing,” but just a little more self-indulgent fun for all. And, while it’s been 25 years since the play premiered, a serious edit might yield a more effective piece without sacrificing the backstories or the still prescient message. The two-hour, two-act play could easily be just as successful in 90-minutes and one act.
Despite a few flaws, “Veronica’s Position” offers a much-needed diversion from the 24-hour news cycle and nostalgically reminds audiences of an era before fake news.
Island City Stage presents “Veronica’s Position” by Rich Orloff through June 30 at Wilton Theater Factory, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors. Tickets are $38 at IslandCityStage.org.