Are the political left and right growing farther apart or coming closer together? It's a question that crops up with renewed force at election time and one that Paula Vogel addresses with dark comic vigor in her 1996 play, The Mineola Twins.
Under Darryl V. Jones' antic direction, Woolly Mammoth's production at the D.C. Jewish Community Center is a rousing romp through three American presidential administrations - Eisenhower, Nixon and the first Bush.
The inventive Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright uses a pair of almost-identical twins (one has a prominently bigger bust than the other) to examine differences and similarities between left- and right-wing adherents.
Both twins are splendidly played by Sarah Marshall, with a level of grave intensity that makes them all the more comic. Myra, the bad twin, is a radical leftist who starts out as a "fast" teen in the restrictive 1950s, progresses to become a terrorist in the late 1960s, and evolves into a lesbian Planned Parenthood exec in the late 1980s. Myrna, the good twin, is a perky but uptight virgin in the 1950s, a frustrated mother and ex-mental patient in the 1960s, and a reactionary talk show host in the 1980s.
Each represents what the other hates most. And, yet, despite diametrically opposed temperaments, lifestyles and politics, an underlying force keeps trying to bring them back together and back to the girlhood bedroom they shared in Mineola, Long Island. Vogel gives this force theatrical form - a broadcast voice, similar to that heard on a school public address system, repeatedly urges the sisters to find and protect each other.
The broadcast voice is one of several fanciful elements which director Jones exploits to eerily humorous effect. Dream - or more accurately, nightmare - sequences punctuate the action, depicting everything from a nuclear attack to Myrna's fantasized murder of Myra. In addition, two silent actors (Eduardo Placer and Erika Rose) portray characters ranging from government agents to psychiatric aides, filling the spaces between scenes with goofy dances that are at once funny and frightening.
Of course, funny and frightening is the type of quirky combination at which Vogel excels. And this play, with its contrasts of love and hate, good and evil, right and left provides a perfect platform for those disparities. In a myriad of ways, Vogel and Jones remind us that these extremes are not that dissimilar - the twins' sons, for example, are played by a single actor (Josh Lefkowitz) as are the twins' great loves (MaryBeth Wise, who appears in drag as the love interest of conservative Myrna).
In the end, The Mineola Twins demonstrates that the twins ultimately want the same thing - to work for a better world; to raise happy, caring children; and to find the sense of peace that comes from loving and being loved. "I wish we could be closer," Myra says in the final dream sequence. At heart, Vogel suggests, we are truly close, if only we'd realize it before we let our differences tear us apart.
Show times at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St., N.W., Washington, are 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 5. Tickets are $24-$39. Call 800-494-8497.
A bit off-track
If Paula Vogel's Mineola Twins is a comedy with a serious purpose, another play in the Washington area -Twentieth Century at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va. - is an exercise in hilarity for hilarity's sake.
This 1932 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur requires such a large cast (24), it's rarely revived. But Signature has mounted a world-premiere adaptation by Washington playwright Ken Ludwig that pares the number of actors down to a manageable 10.
Set on the famed Twentieth Century Limited as the train makes its way from Chicago to New York, the play features a bevy of colorful characters including a desperate Broadway producer, a Hollywood star who is his former lover, a philandering doctor and his paramour, the cast of a German passion play, and a religious fanatic intent on plastering the train with stickers that say "Repent."
The period and subject are ideal for Ludwig, whose best-known shows are all about the theater. But even after trimming Hecht and MacArthur's script as well as its cast, removing dated and racist references and tossing in a few jokes of his own, there's still a dusty, dated feel to this resuscitation effort.
It doesn't help that Eric Schaeffer's direction punches up the humor with so much over-the-top gusto that the action verges on being merely cartoony instead of delightfully silly. It's a basic rule of farce that it has to be played for keeps; Schaeffer's cast plays primarily for laughs.
James Barbour portrays the producer as such an unrelenting ham, he never seems truly desperate. Holly Twyford fares better as his former lover and the star he hopes to sign for his next show. By retaining a kernel of innocence, she makes us care about her character, something Barbour doesn't achieve.
The best performances dare to be understated. Harry A. Winter brings a readily identifiable businessman's common sense to the role of the producer's fed-up general manager, and Donna Migliaccio slyly keeps the religious fanatic's fervor just below her character's seemingly conventional surface.
Ludwig's adaptation is slated for Broadway in March, starring Alec Baldwin. A star might make a difference, or the play may prove too creaky to stand the test of time. Right now, the slickest thing about it is James Kronzer's set, with train cars that slide back and forth as the train moves down the track. It's a set that promises a charming journey, but the rest of the production often stalls along the way.
Show times at Signature, 3806 South Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, Va., are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 5. Tickets are $22-$36. Call 800-955-5566.
Run of the Mill
The theater in Meadow Mill has remained dark since AXIS closed up shop a year ago. Now two troupes - Mobtown Players and the newly established Run of the Mill Theatre Company - have taken over the space. Run of the Mill opens its first production, a double bill of Christopher Durang's 'dentity Crisis and Eugene Ionesco's The Bald Soprano, tomorrow.
Artistic director James Knipple explained that the new company was formed by a core group who work in various capacities - from concessions coordinator to carpenter - at Center Stage. A four-show season is planned.
Show times at Meadow Mill, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 5. Tickets are $12. Call 410-796-1555.
Tickets to Hairspray's two-week run (Sept. 9-21) at the Mechanic Theatre have proven as scarce as unteased hair on the stage. A spokeswoman for the theater explained that season subscribers and groups of 20 or more were given first access to additional tickets. These ticket holders bought all but a limited number of full-price, obstructed-view seats. Those and any tickets that result from last-minute subscriber exchanges are available at the Mechanic box office, 25 Hopkins Plaza. For more information, call 410-625-4230.