Francis Biddle is almost 82. His intestines are caving. He has a pin in his foot. And he has arthritic knuckles-really arthritic knuckles. And he rags on his secretary just 'cause she's from Saskatoon and she's a girl. And he wants to choke people who split their infinitives. And he won't let anybody mess with the heaters in his office. And he tires easy. And he forgets stuff. And he says his cook is a succubus and a petty thief.
And deep down, he's aware that the coming days are his last.
But Biddle's had a good ride in spite of himself. It's fitting that his final earthly rewards involve an incarnation of his ambitions-in the person of Sarah Schorr, the secretary and supporting character in The Old Globe Theatre's current Trying. Just as Sarah has her hands full with her curmudgeonly boss in this West Coast premiere, playwright Joanna McClelland Glass (whose 1967-68 working relationship with the real Biddle inspired the text) plies him with snarly rejoinders gathered over a lifetime of service to his country.
He was the beleaguered U.S. attorney general during World War II, so he's entitled to let fly with a few jabs (“I have a list of ailments from here to Mt. Rushmore”; “There is some shit I will not eat”; “When she's around, even the flies leave the room!”). But soon, those will lose their edge in Sarah's presence. Two generations confront and console each other on the national state of affairs, and they build a deep and abiding friendship without crying in each other's beer. Pretty cool.
The zingers, though, get you only so far. As it turns out, Biddle (Jonathan McMurtry) was a bit of a figure in his own right-a former secretary to Associate Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a presiding judge at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, the author of a book on this country's global role following the war, great-uncle to a druggie, patron of the arts and husband of a poet. Glass expounds on a lot of those things but never deeply enough. She's left an incomplete picture of Francis as a legal scholar and, therefore, as the great human being underneath.
Very pretty Sarah (very pretty Christine Marie Brown) is pregnant and lonely in her marriage, and she's scared all that might jeopardize her ambitions as a writer. Brown brings some nice sympathetic qualities to the role, but she's also got a crucial first-act scene that she and director Richard Seer utterly fail to exploit. Sarah's had a boatful of Biddle's pomposity, and she sternly stands up for Canada and for her womanhood, chiding the jurist about the cracks in his political backbone-yet Brown merely raises her voice, her bearing otherwise intact. She's gotta out-Biddle Biddle and get up in his face, screeching if she has to, to declare her presence. The judge's later capitulations-like letting Sarah rub his hands and screw with the heaters-thus make more sense.
These glitches are noteworthy, but so is McMurtry's masterful underplay of Biddle's wit. Still, it's too bad Glass didn't take a biographer's tack here. Maybe she was just too close to Biddle the man. Or maybe she doesn't know how to craft a play. Or maybe both. Or maybe neither. Or maybe a little of each.
In any case, she's humanized the ol' fart to a fair extent amid some lovely language, right down to his own idiomatic errors-like when he refers to Sarah's “chomping at the bit.” Actually, the word is “champing,” as in showing impatience. But let's not tell him, 'k? Be a shame to spoil that graceful final bow.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of April 20. Trying runs through May 21 at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park. $19-$56. 619-23-GLOBE.
TV or not TV
I swear on a deck of marked cards: I did not know Rehearsal for Murder, the current Lamb's Players Theatre entry, was a teleplay before D.D. Brookes adapted it for the stage. I only found out at home after a closer look at the program, wherein my mild suspicions were confirmed. The script makes a fairly solid story, but there's nothing about it that particularly weds it to the live stage's three-dimensional climate. It probably is better off on TV, or maybe even as a radio play.
It's a thriller about Alex Dennison (Robert Smyth, who also directs), a playwright who launches a plot to catch his fiancée's killer. The real riddle is how Smyth manages to survive an exceedingly difficult role (not only must Dennison tell a story; he's in it).
What's less a mystery is that I picked out the culprit the second he walked onstage. You probably won't, but I have a simple advantage: Nobody's better at that kind of thing than I am.
Rehearsal for Murder runs through May 21 at The Paul and Ione Harter Stage, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado. $22-$44. 619-437-0600.