Power corrupts, it's a truism. On the way, the climb to power corrodes. The soul-selling scramble to possess power can be corrosive -- and corrosion can be way more interesting to watch than corruption. In Dead Metaphor, George F. Walker's new play, the moral relativism and the transparent rationalizations that accompany the climb are played for laughs. And laughter ensues -- to some extent.
In A.C.T.'s world-premiere production, Renee Augesen plays a cynical politician, whose right-wing pandering is the most appealing aspect of Dead Metaphor. Augesen's Helen Denny is a dry-witted, brass-tacks candidate who is comically despicable; she really could care less about her conservative convictions. Augensen's engaging, unabashed villain is the play's juicy magnet, even though the play centers around a war veteran's own moral compass.
Dean Trusk has returned from the Middle East, where he excelled as a sharp-shooter, downing Taliban with expert precision. But back home, with a pregnant wife, he is willing to take any job. Dean, played by George Hampe, is a likeable, boyish Vet. In the first scene, he is being interviewed by Fusco's Oliver Denny, a veterans' affairs social worker and Helen's husband. (She is concerned that "social worker" equals liberal in the public's eyes.)
Dean, with his snap-on tie, is a military assassin, but he's mainly a kid. He's a good killer, but he thinks he would like to write jokes for greeting cards. Oliver gets him a job as a gofer for his wife's campaign and Helen is more than happy to have a war hero to show off.
Dean's wife Jenny (a vague performance by Rebekah Brockman) is relieved he found a job. They are living with his parents for now and Dean's father is sick and getting worse.
As Dean's father Hank, Tom Bloom's gruff and volatile personality is a familiar type. His mental deterioration and unpredictable outbursts are well- played for laughs and his paternal concern is reasonably touching. Sharon Lockwood plays his loyal, worried wife with generic capability.
Helen and Oliver's dynamic is more original. She wryly shares her unprincipled campaign with her submissive husband and their blunt marital polarities are fairly engaging. Anthony Fusco's performance rises above stock wimpiness, he mingles deadpan concern with resigned exasperation -- even as his wife heaps scorn on their daughter. Augesen's Helen is clearly self-amused with her cynicism.
Under Irene Lewis' competent direction, the play U-turns, shifting from character-based satire to broad, curve-ball comedy. In Act II, Dead Metaphor's genre rapidly switches from political satire to double-crossing double-agent high-stakes intrigue.
The playwright starts with a promising premise, a theme that considers death and dying, war and killing, ethics, politics and the greater good. There's a lot of fodder for philosophizing and satire here, but Walker's script goes off the deep-end into nutty far-fetched farce.
Neither sharp enough for satire or irony, Dead Metaphor misfires.
Dead Metaphor runs through March 24, 2013 at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit act-sf.org.
All photos by Kevin Berne.