By Beatrice Williams-Rude
All politicked out? Tired of the parody that is our current political situation?
Chill, take a deep breath, and amble over to the Castillo Theatre to see Votes, a musical about the Clintons purporting to show how they arrived where they are and what was lost along the way, starting with conscience.
This is a lighthearted look at a dark landscape but although it pulls no punches, it’s neither mean nor preachy.
The Votes venue alternates between a hotel suite on the eve of the 2016 presidential election and the Oval Office in 1999. There are flashbacks to the nineteen sixties in both venues. “They Don’t Inhale at Yale.”
We’re shown a couple, Melanie and William Jefferson, committed to one another despite an open marriage. Their compact transcends all else. They are bonded in their quest for power: she’s the brains; he’s the drive.
We’re shown the devolution of character as Mrs. Jefferson moves from her role as First Lady to Senator to Secretary of State to running for the presidency. In defending her foreign policy decisions she says Obama put her in charge of the “blunder department.”
Her foreign policy follies are detailed—the vote for the Iraq war, the toppling of Gaddafi which opened the way for ISIS, among others.
A frequent rhyme: Melanie and felony. We’re given examples of the Jeffersons skating on thin ice including dubious real estate deals, excited by the danger but always confident “We can wriggle our way out.” “We didn’t come this far to get our hands caught in the cookie jar.”
They considered themselves Bonnie and Clyde with law degrees. They also saw themselves as artificial constructs, nothing genuine left.
The arc has Melanie unraveling, not “wanting to do this anymore,” and the couple seeing a shrink, Mrs. Shrunk.
Explaining how they became cynical:
“McGovern was the
ultimate political outsider. Nixon was the ultimate political insider.
McGovern was a good man. Nixon was evil incarnate. We went to
work for McGovern. And Nixon carried 49 states.
“We learned our politics from Nixon. We learned it was all about votes.
“It’s not about what you stand for. It’s not about who you are. It’s about whether you
can get one more person to vote for you than the other guy.”
I’ll not divulge the dénoument; suffice it to say it takes a different tone, more fable or morality tale than the acerbic plain talk that led up to it.
Melanie Jefferson is beautifully played by Lisa Wright-Mathews, whose own personal sweetness makes the character far more attractive than what the text indicates.
There’s a blockbuster performance by Wayne Miller as William Jefferson—hillbilly, Slick Willy, charmer and vote getter.
Vivian Traveler (played by Debbie Buchsbaum), longtime friend and an unblinking observer who asks if Melanie can live without a conscience, gives a finely honed performance in a multi-layered role.
Mrs. Shrunk is delightfully portrayed by Frances McGarry. Brett, Melanie’s attractive male intern, is effectively played by Bryan Austermann. The director is Gabrielle L. Kurlander.
Set design by Miguel Romero; lighting by Nick Kolin; musical director, Michael Walsh; sound design by David Belmont; costumes by Kerry Gibbons; and choreography by Lonné Moretton. Votes is being presented by the Castillo Theatre, John Rankin, III is the producer.
Explaining the writing credits is complex: The book is by Jacqueline S. Salit and the late Fred Newman whose earlier work, The Last Temptation of William Jefferson, was deposited inside this play written and set 17 years later.
Music is by Annie Roboff; lyrics by Fred Newman. Lyrics to “The Rules of the Game,” the theme of which forms a kind of leit motif, by Jacqueline S. Salit.
Votes opened on April 1 and will run through May 22. It’s at the Castillo Theatre, 543 West Forty-second Street, slightly west of Theatre Row in Manhattan. It runs for two hours with a 10-minute intermission.
Photos: Ronald K. Glassman