JFK ON JFK

Actor/playwright Michael Shannon scores with this clear-eyed, solid portrayal of Jack Kennedy. While the evening could use some judicious cutting, Shannon's memorable performance captures the character and, more importantly, the soul of the late president like none other in recent memory. Shannon, under the skillful direction of Vickery Turner, tells Kennedy's story from crisis to crisis as the hundred days of his presidency unfold, beginning with the CIA-bungled Bay of Pigs invasion, through the Berlin crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, and the escalating war in Vietnam.

Avoiding the self-conscious philosophizing of many historical portraits, Shannon focuses on the details of each critical decision, weaving the political personalities of the era into the trench warfare of policy-making. In the midst of it all is Kennedy, who seems equal parts backroom Irish pol, political philosopher, and reluctant visionary. While Shannon tackles the thorny issues of Kennedy's sexual addiction, his multiple illnesses, and his complex relationship with his father, he achieves a balance between the flawed psyche of the private JFK and the political personality who, above all, was a passionately driven political animal.

In an era when politics has been reduced to the tabloid level of discourse, Shannon focuses on what JFK and all great politicians do best—strive for a mastery of the intricate minutiae of politics, while never losing sight of a larger vision of government. It is, as Shannon's piece reveals, a very tough job that few of us would care to undertake.

A few audience members—particularly avid conspiracy theorists—might dispute some of Shannon's views of Kennedy's motivations. Shannon, for example, takes the view that Cuba was an overriding concern for JFK, who had won the 1960 election with fewer than one hundred thousand votes and always felt the hot breath of anti-communism on his back, while some observers believe he was by inclination a Cold Warrior. He also portrays JFK as deeply involved in the civil rights struggle, while some historians believe he took a more detached and pragmatic approach. To his credit, Shannon wades into the thick of these historical disputes with vigor.

The length of the piece—more than two hours—does undermine the effectiveness of Shannon's strong writing and powerful acting. Cutting a half-hour out of the show, particularly in the overlong first act, would add considerably to the dramatic power and pace of the evening. Director Turner deserves praise for her terse and elegant staging, and for creating a tone that permits the considerable gifts of Shannon to emerge. With a few tweaks and some ruthless cutting, Shannon is within shouting distance of creating the definitive portrait of JFK for our time.

"JFK on JFK," Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. $15. (818) 227-9602.