By Bart Greenberg . . .
On the grounds of a distinguished state university, a museum dedicated to one of their most distinguished alumni and former professor is having an official opening or perhaps having a soft opening, or maybe it’s a delayed opening. That is, after the building was shifted from the center of the campus to a location somewhere along the edge of the property. And perhaps not all of the exhibits are completed. Or even conceived. But the initial, and somewhat hostile, visitors are welcomed by the charming if slightly nervous curator Joe (short for Aloysius – maybe). If things seem uncertain, well there are good reasons which we will learn with time. For the Honorable Senator Herbert Peabody may not have been quite so honorable in reality.
This fascinating multi-layered one man show was written and performed by the appealing Kirk McGee and developed and directed by Corey Atkins. Together, they have created a theater piece that explores today’s political atmosphere, as well as themes of loyalty, honesty and integrity. The 70-minute one act is almost overfull with thoughts and ideas and plotlines, but the skilled actor kept everything grounded. He was also adept at helping the audience visualize the major off-stage characters: the esteemed Senator with feet of clay; Joe’s staff members who have one foot out the door and insist on constantly interrupting his presentation; the politician’s shapely executive assistant; and a woman named Emma. Ahhh, Emma. Ambitious. Friend. Object of desire. Destroyer. Compromiser. Of course, we never quite see her, but she is present in surprising and unexpected ways. But that’s part of the mystery too. And when our guide confides that “It’s never our enemies who betray us,” her effect upon the hapless Joe resonates deeply. In fact, she is more concrete than the elusive Senator himself who we never quite get a corporal sense of.
Cliona Smith (scenic design) and Paige Seber (lighting design) provided the perfect Disney-like environment for the play, with a clean and unfussy design that gives lots of room for McGee to work in while the walls contain alternatively glowing framed spaces that the script implies contain pictures of the politician, and even entries to other exhibit areas, but remain as empty as the man himself. This work provides excellent support to the story and the actor himself without distracting by calling attention – a tricky balance that is admirably achieved. The same can be said of Atkins’ direction. Always smooth, always reinforcing the story, but never craving the audience’s awareness. When McGee struggles with his index cards and other props, it is not clear in the moment if these are rehearsed (they are) or spontaneous.
At the center of this production was McGee. Reminiscent of a younger Jeff Daniels, there was never a moment where one could catch him acting. From the stumbling, charming beginning to the highly emotional climax, his performance was completely natural. Becoming more and more focused as he, and the story, continued to build and truths were revealed. Like a laser beam honing in on its target, the audience was caught up in his passion. This was a rare performance that could combine the comedy and the tragedy of a man destroyed by loyalty to the wrong people.
The show, which ran at the Chain Theatre, 312 W. 38th St., NYC, a most inviting space, was only scheduled for four performances. Hopefully Kirk McGee and The Honorable Herbert Peabody will return for the open-ended run it deserves. www.thepeabodyplay.com
Reviewed March 2, 2022
Photos by Corey Atkins