THE QUARTERED MAN': CIA IN NICARAGUA
The Los Angeles Times (pre-1997 Fulltext); Los Angeles, Calif.; Dec 25, 1985; SYLVIE DRAKE;
(Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1985 all Rights reserved)
Donald Freed can't resist political controversy. He has to grab hold, noodle it, needle it, toss it around,
try it for size, inject it with his own neopolitical dye the better to expose it.
He's done this with great brio in one-on-one fictions such as "Secret Honor," "The White Crow," "Circe and Bravo." It works less well when the canvas he tackles is larger-as in "The Quartered Man," which opened Monday at the Los Angeles Theatre Center's Bradley Theatre. Here the brush strokes are so thick and heavy,
so clever, fast and furious that they obfuscate the painting.
The subject is close to all of our nervous systems: CIA involvement in Nicaragua. The anti-hero is a career secret agent, George O'Connor (John Carter), in San Jose, Costa Rica, who is ready to crack. The pressure?
Call it patriotic expectations vs. job requirements-or reality therapy as the systematic erosion of self-respect.
The CIA calls it simply burnout, which may explain the unexplained arrival of Buddy Heubing (Charlie Parks),
a singularly hard-edged and foul-mouthed figure to expedite this downfall. After all, the American ambassador, Grahmn Jones (William Glover), seems entirely too fond of O'Connor and someone has to take charge.
Freed takes this several steps further. He confronts O'Connor, a former seminarian, with Sister Mary Agnes Cassidy (the Irishness of both surnames should escape no one). She's a nun with the bad taste of being a poet, and a troublemaker who asks him for protection against death threats-protection O'Connor cannot or does not deliver.
O'Connor also has made a bad marriage to the nefarious spoils of a previous assignment: the striking and thoroughly corruptible Vietnamese Mai (Nancy Kwan).
When Cassidy (Dianne Turley Travis) is tortured to death by the contras and the adulterous Mai consorts with
her husband's local agent (Robert Beltran), O'Connor loses the last shreds of his sanity. To goad him irrevocably over the edge, throw in a knight in shining armor, a persistent priest from the States, Father Cruze (Brock Peters), who comes in search of Cassidy's body and O'Connor's soul, and you have it: the quartered man-torn asunder, theologically, morally, socially, politically.
That's the game plan: obvious, full of accessible metaphor and, to borrow the author's phrase, sexpionage. Behind the razzle-dazzle is no lack of substance, but it's hard to get to. The pervasive fragmentation of the piece-a collage, really-keeps the characters as incomplete as Russell Pyle's admirable shattered-stone platform set, Lawrence Metzler's dancing lights, Stephen Shaffer's recurrent cacophonies and John Cannaday's ubiquitous video.
The problem is that the production, thoroughly overconceptualized by director Mark Travis and LATC producing artistic director Bill Bushnell, is so busy trying not to be docudrama that it errs too far the other way.
The characters are mouthpieces trapped in a puzzle of high-tech theatrics and the artificiality of the whole gets in the way of the particular. Less here would definitely have been more.
In the end, the production is quartered by its multimedia excesses. Too bad, because Freed, a politically passionate writer, brimming with information and facile with knowledge, does have something to say.
His cleverness with language keeps you listening, or trying to-especially to the ambassador, the closest thing here to a fully developed character (and played with a graceful stingand wit by the elegant Glover).
There is a valuable statement at the heart of "The Quartered Man" that is almost drowned out by the surrounding technology: A country that defiles its own rules, Freed tells us, is doomed. His account of the hippopotamus hunters of the Katami River who harden themselves for the hunt by sleeping with their own daughters is as
chilling an image of the rape of our principles as you can get.
Still, there is a disturbing glibness overall. The warning metaphor of Vietnam as America's wrong bride and bad conscience in bed with Costa Rica is too slick and transparent. The acting is not entirely satisfying either, but attributable more to the incompleteness of the characters than to other shortcomings. And there's little doubt that the play's clarity would improve if Freed dispensed with a number of peripheral characters.
It's doubtful any of this can be dealt with during the play's run at the LATC, but if it aspires to a life beyond, some rethinking would have to be in order.
Performances at 514 S. Spring St. continue through Jan. 11; (213) 627- 5599.
©RoAdBe is a fan site and is not the official Robert Beltran site. No copyright infringements intended.