A governor throws his hat, and his partner, into the ring

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Disappointed in candidates so far in the 2016 presidential race? A fun new play posits a viable alternative.

Given how swiftly a good portion of the nation has evolved on the subject of gay rights — including five members of what Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia called the "select, patrician, highly unrepresentative panel of nine" that just affirmed a constitutional bulwark for same-sex marriage — the idea of a gay, partnered presidential candidate doesn't seem far-fetched.

But a viable candidate for the Democratic nomination, one with more than a snowball's chance in you-know-where? That's the scenario envisioned by playwright Mario Correa in "Commander," an entertaining, often incisive work receiving its world premiere by Vagabond Players.

The Chilean-born, New York-based Correa, who grew up in Maryland and worked for several years on Capitol Hill, is a self-proclaimed political junkie. He generated lots of buzz last season with his Off Broadway comedy "Tail! Spin!" which examined recent sexcapades by American politicians using their own emails and texts verbatim.

In "Commander," Correa creates the intriguing character of Ned Worley (sturdily played by Mark Scharf), a former professor who squeaked into the office of lieutenant governor and unexpectedly ended up in the governor's chair.

The state in question Rhode Island — "As close to nothing as nothing gets," a political consultant says — isn't going to help with voter recognition. The governor's thin resume is a drawback, too. Then there's that little matter of Worley's orientation.

But times and attitudes are changing, right? With careful strategy, the result just might be "out with the old, in with the — out," as that same consultant, the f-word-addicted campaign veteran Frank DeSantis (an impressively brusque Jeff Murray), puts it.

Correa sets up the plot skillfully and spices it with humor, often slyly. (One rapid-fire exchange slips in a droll quotation from the musical "La Cage aux Folles.") Above all, the writer plays this gay story straight. This isn't some camp fantasy, but a plausible story aided by Correa's grasp of our politics and history.

There's a familiar ring to scenes that pit the proud candidate against his caucus-bruised handlers, and an equally knowing approach to the private-life issues raised in the play, especially involving Worley's partner, high school teacher Richard Gilly (vibrantly portrayed by Thom Sinn).

In Richard, the playwright creates someone who joins a line of political spouses who have battled demons when threatened with the public eye. Richard has already had his fill just being the other half to a governor. He has good reason to worry about the White House run, its effect on Ned, its toll on their 12-year relationship.

All of this leads to some cliched passages, some brushes with melodrama. And Richard conjures up a few too many images of Cameron on the TV sitcom "Modern Family" (Sinn's performance underlines that resonance).

The most forced writing comes in Act 2, after a reporter (Fiona Ford) pops the question — how come Ned and Richard aren't married? That results in a flashback to the seedy bar where the two men met, a scene that would ring truer if the calendar were rolled back two dozen years, not just 12.

Nonetheless, this passage does impart essential information about both men, how a scared and scarred grad student would end up in a long-term relationship with a high school teacher prone to sarcastic comebacks. And it's here that Correa reveals the deepest meaning of a word that runs throughout the play — "promise" — and makes it register with fresh power.

The staging of "Commander," guided by Chelsea Dove in her directorial debut, plays out effectively, for the most part, on a simple, sleek set (Roy Steinman). The cast seems fired up by the work; Murray's frequent outbursts and Scharf's intense, final campaign speech register with considerable force.

Note, too, the many subtle nuances from David Shoemaker as Frank's more-than-meets-the-eye associate, Zack Maines, who starts to believe in the dream — the promise — of Worley's candidacy. Zack's faith is quite contagious.

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If you go

Remaining performances of "Commander" are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday at Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway. Tickets are $12. Call 410-563-9135, or go to vagabondplayers.org.

 

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