It's hard to figure why Continental Divide, David Edgar's conjecture about West Coast gubernatorial politics, assumes the form of a two-play cycle. Despite the "West Coast" descriptor, Edgar takes no pains to conceal the shows' California flavor. And in a state that last October chose a Hollywood celebrity its governor from a field of 135 candidates (the slate usually totals about a dozen), Edgar's dual hypotheticals on our two-party system are woefully polarized.
One play would have done nicely.
The opener for the La Jolla Playhouse's 2004 season, Divide uses the recent past as the context for examining the American political system. The Republicans take their turn in the first part, "Mothers Against," in which candidate Sheldon Vine (Bill Geisslinger) struggles to temper his own libertarian philosophy so that it jibes with voters' expectations.
The second portion, "Daughters of the Revolution," focuses on Michael Bern (Terry Layman), a community college dean who searches the Democrats' camp for an infiltrator-someone who, back in the '60s, worked with the FBI to betray out a different political collective, of which he was a trusted member.
Edgar, a Briton who won a best-play Tony in 1982 with The Life And Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, deeply admires the mosaic that is California. For him, the state's political machine underlies its gargantuan social diversity.
"Of all the places on the planet," he wrote in the May 30 Los Angeles Times, "California is where you can fulfill the American dream of upping stakes, boarding the boat, traversing the prairies, changing your religion, language and name and building a new life by your own efforts and on your own terms."
But ironically, the headline on his story reads, "Staging our political reality." It's a gross oversimplification (as most Times headlines are), and the article it introduces makes for messy theater. By today's standards, there's nothing "real" about Vine or Bern; despite their entanglements in the rough-and-tumble political process, their philosophies haven't adapted with the times. The result is a caricature, especially in "Daughters," which includes lengthy segments with guerrilla warriors, whose over-the-top gamesmanship resembles an adult rendition of the children's game King of the Hill.
Director Tony Taccone's staging also struggles upstream. The Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre tends to swallow the players and set, leaving the actors to holler their way through the rote blocking. The tech work helps enhance some fair acting, but at its foundation, Continental Divide is neither continental nor divisive enough.
This review is based on the performances of June 13. Continental Divide runs through Aug. 1 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla. $28-$52. 858-550-1010.
That's more like it
Athol Fugard's A Lesson from Aloes doesn't contain a single reference to Nelson Mandela, an omission that strains credulity. You'd think a play about South Africa set in 1963-only a year after Mandela began doing time on charges of illegal exit and, later, government sabotage-would use history more aggressively to indict the oppressive apartheid policies that marked the country during those times.
Still, this 6th@Penn entry features some decent character studies and is a candid illustration of apartheid's deeply personal cost. Afrikaner Piet Bezuidehout (Bernard Baldan) and his black friend Steve (Rhys Greene) are politicked out in a nation awash with police informants; Piet's wife Gladys (Linda Castro) has her own psychological crosses to bear as a resident of the country she so intensely despises. The play contains many lengthy scenes, and director Luis Torner sustains interest by leaving well enough alone.
The show, which runs through July 21, is decidedly better than Fugard's The Road to Mecca, a recent 6th@Penn entry that fell under the weight of its gross oversentiment and some sucky writing. 619-688-9210.