Both Your Houses
Timely production more monotone than revelatory
|Remy Bumppo Theatre presents|
|Both Your Houses|
Review by Catey Sullivan
Populated by interchangeable characters engaged in stultifying speechifying, Remy Bumppo’s latest marks a rare miss for the company. Set in Washington D.C. in the early years of the Depression, Maxwell Anderson’s Both Your Houses unfolds around a conference table as members of the House Appropriations Committee debate the line items buried in a bill that would allot tens of millions to build a dam in Nevada.
Directed by Remy Bumppo founder James Bohnen, Both Your Houses is especially frustrating because so many of the core issues it attempts to cover are so relevant more than 70 years after the play premiered. When Anderson’s piece debuted In 1933, the country was staggering under debt, an abysmally high unemployment rate and mired in the worst economic downturn of the century.
As Anderson laboriously shows through committee meeting conversations and sidebars, the leaders responsible for getting the country out of the Depression often (perhaps usually) felt more beholden to special interest groups and lobbyists than rank-and-file voters. That’s the state of affairs that should hit hard in a contemporary political climate where fortunes in tax dollars can be allocated to pay for a Bridge to Nowhere.
There’s no Bridge to Nowhere in the legislation that takes up most of the dialogue in Both Your Houses (inspired by the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1927), but the bill is larded with millions of dollars in pork projects that include everything from birth control education for impoverished rural women to refurbishment of aging battleships.
Anderson does nominally succeed in depicting the paradox of pork barrel politics. As the infamous truism goes, one man’s pork is indeed another man’s job.
As the debate winds ever onward in the committee meetings that make up the bulk of Both Your Houses, Congressmen (and one Congresswoman) go over line items providing healthcare for underserved communities, new prisons and funding for agricultural projects. An hour or so into the heavy-handed discussion, and you might well find yourself unable to care less about whether or not the dam bill passes.
The ostensible conflict here comes with the arrival of freshman Nevada Representative Alan McClain (Chris Amos), a wholesome looking young fellow so strait-laced that he actually has his own campaign investigated for fiscal improprieties. He’s shocked to learn that his colleagues have no qualms about using their power to reward campaign donors and lobbyists with lucrative contracts and other tax-payer funded perks.
Putting himself on a pedestal of morality, McClain spends the duration of the production trying to defeat the bill, even though his own district stands to benefit immensely from the dam project.
Anderson’s plot has all the ingredients for scathing indictment of Beltway politics and, by rights, it should deliver a thoughtful exploration of the necessary evils of influence peddling and out-of-control spending in the halls of power. Instead, it plays like a dramatization of line-items – essentially just a few steps above a recitation of the Federal tax code.
The primary problem is that the majority of the characters come across not as individuals so much as a monotone monolith. Granted, Congress wasn’t exactly a bastion of diversity in the early decades of the 20th century. But surely Anderson could have crafted characters who didn’t seem like clones of each other, all of them spouting similar, windy speeches about how government really works.
Finally, Anderson’s ultimate resolution to the will-it-or-won’t-it-pass question seems like a cheat. We won’t indulge in spoilers here, but we will point out that to override a Presidential veto, you need a 2/3 majority at the time that veto is issued. You don’t need to have it before the bill even makes it to the President’s desk.
Both Your Houses attempts to skewer the sausage-making process of churning out legislation. But despite its inherent timeliness, the production has all drama of an 8th grade primer on How a Bill Becomes a Law.
Both Your Houses continues through November 9th at Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Wednesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 2:30pm and 7:30pm, Sundays 2:30pm. Tickets are $47.50-$52.50, and are available by phone (773-404-7336) or online through Vendini.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at RemyBumppo.org. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Johnny Knight
David Darlow (Sol), Lunda Gillum (Bus), Peter A. Davis (Gray), Eliza Stoughton (Marjorie), Chris Amos (Alan), Larry Balducci (Levering), Jesse Dornan (Peebles), Scott Egleston (Mark), James Houton (Eddie), Peter Eli Johnson (Merton, Ebner), Brian Parry (Wingblatt), Joanne Riopelle (Ms. McMurty), Noah Simon (Dell), Paul Tinsley (Farnum).
behind the scenes
James Bohnen (director), Yu Shibagaki (set design), Emily Waecker (costume design), Toy Deiorio (music), Mike Durst (lighting design), Jesse Gaffney (props design), Amber Gensterblum (assistant director), Baleigh Isaacs (stage manager), Johnny Knight (photos)