My one golden memory is of an off-off-Broadway production decades ago of “We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!” But the subversive zaniness that was Fo’s specialty and remains his legacy has been something I’ve largely had to take on account.
The Actors’ Gang production of “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” at the company’s Ivy Substation headquarters in Culver City fills us in on what many of us have been missing. But this attractive, hard-working production also suggests why there might be some reluctance to try out Fo’s plays.
Problems of translation and differences in cultural tastes are compounded by an even bigger issue: Nothing ages faster than styles of comedy.
The political targets of “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” are still sadly with us, requiring only a brisk American reworking of names and places to make the play sting again. But the systematic plot seems sluggish and at odds with the manic improvisational verve that was perhaps Fo’s true genius.
The play belabors what the performers need to generate with volcanic spontaneity. As a result, the game cast, under the direction of Will Thomas McFadden, charms and exhausts in equal measure.
“Accidental Death of An Anarchist’ is the only play by Fo to make it to Broadway, where it was quickly sent packing by the New York Times’ all-powerful Frank Rich in 1984. “This is an evening of strained silliness that defies even the Herculean, high-flying efforts of its star, the gifted English actor Jonathan Pryce, to galvanize it,” Rich wrote in what would turn out to be the short-lived production’s coroner’s report.
An indefatigable Bob Turton plays the central role of the Maniac, who busts into a police station where a railway worker suspected of terrorism recently leaped from a window after a protracted and unprincipled interrogation. Posing (in this heavily tweaked version of Jon Laskin and Michael Aquilante’s translation) as a special counsel sent from the Justice Department, this protean nut job investigates the matter himself, exposing the brutality and cover-up of a police department that is as fiendishly corrupt as the Maniac is farcically lawless.
To succeed in this relentlessly madcap role (sometimes translated as the Madman or Fool), an actor must succumb to the lunacy. As the Maniac’s disguises get more outlandish, his behavior grows more unhinged. But insanity, even with goofy prosthetics, isn’t easily faked, and this demented folly can only work if it flows naturally.
Robin Williams would have been perfect for the role in his prime, and Jim Carrey might want to consider testing it out in a compressed adaptation. But the play requires a performer who can’t contain his clowning.
Turton is fearlessly wacky, but he’s an actor before he’s a jester and so the performance can’t help seeming a little studied at times. It’s strange to feel guilty for not being more amused, but I found myself applauding Turton’s boldness, cheering his stamina, saluting his virtuosity — and laughing only sparingly.
The production, perhaps inspired by an exhibition of art by Fo and renowned illustrator Ralph Steadman that Actors’ Gang artistic director Tim Robbins has set up in the lobby, has great visual style. Margaret Cleary’s sets, Cihan Sahin’s projections, Bosco Flanagan’s lighting and Tess Vidal’s costumes establish a world that is at once redolent of 1970 (when the play was first done) and theatrically eternal.
Ethan Corn and Adam J. Jefferis, both wiry and mustachioed, are fun to watch as hyper-aggressive police captains at each other’s throats. As the swaggering police chief, Guebri Vanover (filling in for Lynde Houck at the reviewed performance) yields some genuine chuckles as the pressure on her slippery character mounts. Tom Szymanski stomps about intimidatingly as a beefy officer. And Julia Finch adds a welcome dose of rational competence as the journalist who sees straight through the crooked bureaucratic shenanigans when she makes a late entrance in the second act
“Accidental Death of an Anarchist” takes too much time to get into top gear, but when it explodes into full-blown madness (complete with blaring music) it’s a raucous delight. The political punchlines have been expertly renovated to agitate all sides. (Fo himself was a master of offending politicians of every stripe.) Donald Trump isn’t a main topic of mockery in this update, but he lurks conspicuously in the background of jokes. Direct hits, though, aren’t necessary: The basic outline of Fo’s satire is so twisted it already gives the president’s Twitter account a run for its deranged money.
The uncompromising ending (endings, to be accurate — the play gives the audience a choice) might help explain how this comedian-turned-dramatist ended up with the Nobel Prize in literature. Fo was no Beckett or Pinter, but his penetrating political comedy has some lasting insights into state power and the treacherous deceptions institutionalized to maintain it. The Actors’ Gang deserves our gratitude for bravely tackling a play that, despite some arthritis in its joints, hasn’t lost its punch.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’
Where: The Actors’ Gang Theater at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. (Check for exceptions.) Ends March 9
Tickets: $34.99 – $50
Information: (310) 838-4264 or www.TheActorsGang.com
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes