With the war in Iraq still simmering and the primary season now upon us, one would have to live under a rock not to take notice of national politics. How deliciously ironic, then, for Theatre Neo to resurrect with such infectious glee Jules Feiffer's darkly comic satire, which originally premiered in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam conflict and prophetically warned of what later evolved into Watergate. In the commendably capable hands of director Matt Kirkwood, Feiffer's homage to Dr. Strangelove manages to make nods to Barry Levinson's more recent satire, Wag the Dog. The play depicts, in part, a cabinet meeting six weeks before the first Tuesday in November, at which President Emerson Hale and his cronies try to explain away the deaths of 750 servicemen who fell prey, due to a change in the winds, to a nerve gas agent they themselves launched against the enemy in America's war with—of all countries—Brazil.
Kirkwood's casting, down to the last man and the lone woman, is perfect. The joy of witnessing an ensemble so in tune with one another's choices, intentions, and comic timing is beyond that of mere entertainment. Actors can glean more than any casting director workshop will ever impart simply by watching this company at work.
Structurally, scenes alternate between a rain forest setting, where the seriocomic physical and mental deterioration of two soldiers exposed to C-B-9-7 plays out, and the deadpan hilarity of the oval office. As Lt. Cutler and Capt. Weems, Tripp Pickell and Jon Malmed cling to their duty while progressing from confusion and fear to acceptance of their fate. Meanwhile, Lee Ryan, as the stoically suffering president, is surrounded by the most incredible collection of bureaucratic dunderheads one could possibly imagine.
Thomas Crawford's mealy-mouthed foreign affairs advisor, Professor Sweeney, harbors unrequited romantic interest for the peacenik-supporting First Lady, authoritatively played by the no-nonsense Rita Renee. Howard S. Miller as Postmaster General Stiles and Michael Merton as Attorney General Cole point fingers and spin the truth with ease. As Secretary of Defense Parson, Michael E. Dempsey skillfully crafts a comic showstopper, using a map of Brazil and a black magic marker while attempting to explain the nerve gas debacle. Despite this quartet's constant hysterical maneuvering to save individual face while reveling in one another's inability to gain information, David St. James nearly steals the show as the blind, facially scarred, half-paralyzed General Pratt, a survivor of the gas attack who now speaks through a cheap and shoddy electronic voice simulator.
But as the show's title reminds us, forget ye not that there's a murderer afoot! Ending Act One, this turn of events leaves the oval office in an uproar, and in Act Two the players top one another with their stupefyingly acute sense of the painfully obvious. Eventually all is revealed, and the wheels of government continue to roll glacially forward. David Miller's fetching use of lights maximizes a cleverly devised scenic design credited to Matthew Scarpino and Aaron Gregory. Political satire very rarely reaches its potential zenith. Theatre Neo's not-to-be-missed production succeeds because it dares to ride the dead horse rather than simply standing around beating it.
"The White House Murder Case," presented by Theatre Neo at the Hudson Avenue Theatre, 6537 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Tue.-Wed. 8 p.m., Jan. 14-Feb. 25. $18. (323) 769-5858.