Theater Review: DEVIL’S ADVOCATE by Donald Freed (Los Angeles)

by Harvey Perr on April 7, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

Devils Advocate by Donald Freed at LATC with Robert Beltran and Tom Fitzpatrick

THE GENERAL AND THE ARCHBISHOP

Gore Vidal wondered if the stupidest city in the world even deserved a play as radical as Donald Freed’s Devil’s Advocate. He certainly seemed, in a post-play discussion at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, surprised to be seeing the play done at all. Freed has had some defenders of his art who would rank among the most politically impacted writers of our time, including the venerable and still furious Vidal, as well as the late Harold Pinter, and our own lamented Studs Terkel, who called Freed the “most political and pertinent of all American playwrights.” And, surely, in the political climate of our own corrupt and rotting culture, there is a virtual absence of playwrights who are willing to look square-faced at the collapse or our civilization and, more significantly, at the hypocrisies which have slowly but surely created this global cesspool we see all around us every day of our waking lives.

So, of course, one wants a play like Freed’s to bring lucidity and vision to an audience desperately hungry for intellectual and political sustenance. Therefore, while one wants to admire the play for its mere existence, if nothing else, it is sad to report that Devil’s Advocate only fitfully comes alive as theater.

https://www.stageandcinema.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/devils-advocate-title-card-35.jpgThe drama, which deals with the American invasion of Panama in 1989 to oust the politically monstrous Manuel Noriega – and which has an almost astonishing resemblance to what is happening right now in Libya – pits the ruthless Noriega against the Archbishop Laboa who offers him sanctuary but who has to deal with his and the Catholic Church’s own participation in the CIA-led murder. Nobody is free of guilt in this unholy alliance. This is no simple case of good vs. evil, because the madness that lurks at the heart of the situation is too complex and too far-reaching. The problem, however, as so often happens in plays like this, is that it is Noriega, the dark force, who gets the satisfaction of Freed’s most eloquent dramatic writing. Bad guys, especially in history and always in drama, are, to put it bluntly, more interesting than the good guys, especially if the good guys are emotionally hemmed in by their religious faith. The opportunity to make a full-bodied creation of the Archbishop and his betrayal of both Noriega and of his own fixed beliefs is somewhat still-born.

But Noriega, without sacrificing any of his arrogance, becomes not only more human but more vulgarly recognizable, particularly in a stunningly-written monologue around which the second and more powerful act is framed. Freed also captures the atmosphere of a city in flames while loudspeakers constantly blare forth with condemnations of Noriega’s drug connections interspersed with the party-like sounds of rock and roll. And, on Tesshi Nakagawa’s garishly fetid set, there is a visible sense of decay.

But the real problem is Jose Luis Valenzuela’s direction, which stresses the jerkiness and discursiveness of the first act – which, here, seems like an overlong set-up – and fails to bring sharpness to the second act, which is both more powerful and more contained, and in his failure to get his actors to appear with each other in the same play. The brilliant Tom Fitzpatrick’s Laboa is in a savagely witty comedy of manners. The emotionally potent Robert Beltran is in an overheated comic melodrama that is perched somewhere between an Almodovar film and an old operetta. But the connection between them is strained and often simply unexplainable. They even seem to move around the stage as if unsure of where to go and literally run away from each other as if in fear of collision. This, in a play that cries out for collision.

Still, as Mr. Vidal says, the stupidest city in the world needs a play like Devil’s Advocate. But we shouldn’t have to count on Donald Freed being the only playwright willing to look so passionately at the lies that our political system has told us is the truth. This is a big subject; tackling it may be good enough. One can’t help but be annoyed that it is ultimately a theatrical experience of missed opportunities.

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

photo by Ed Krieger

Devil’s Advocate
scheduled to close April 24 at time of publication
for tickets, visit http://thelatc.org/2011/shows/devils-advocate/

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