- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2006

Presidential hopeful Grant Matthews (Jim Abele) is guilty— of being honest. His high principles and penchant for speaking his mind could cost him the election, but not if backroom politico James Conover (Sam Tsoutsouvas) can help it. Conover will do anything to get a Republican in the White House.

Originally produced in 1945, “The State of the Union”— onstage at Ford’s Theater — is as up-to-the-minute as a podcast, thanks to a sparkling production under the direction of Kyle Donnelly that emphasizes the savvy insights and jaunty dialogue of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s Pulitzer Prize-winning political comedy.

You may groan at the idea of a three-act, well-made play, but Miss Donnelly keeps things at a flyboy pace, and the show just zips by. She also has assembled a cast that can nimbly handle the crackling rhythms and hard-boiled, 1940s writing style.

Grant Matthews is a “captain of industry,” a successful aeronautics titan, sort of like Howard Hughes without the psychosis. Handpicked by Conover and his cronies, Matthews naively allows himself to be groomed for candidacy, believing that what worked in the boardroom surely will transfer to the political arena.

Nothing could be further from the truth. First on the list in Matthews’ extreme makeover is banishing his mistress, tough-minded newspaper publisher Kay Thorndyke (Martha Hackett), to the shadows and shoving his estranged wife Mary (Ellen Karas) into the glare of the spotlight. Mary, who has a dalliance with an Army major in her past, views the campaign trail as a way to possibly salvage her ailing marriage.

Mary is no vacantly smiling, cookie-baking housewife.

She’s sharp-tongued, opinionated and determined to keep her husband true to himself and his values. Mary and Grant’s relationship is one of the sophisticated delights of “State of the Union.” As played with lusty acrimony by Miss Karas and Mr. Abele, their zesty competitiveness recalls Tracy and Hepburn in the screen version.

With the wife in place, Conover and newspaperman-turned-political adviser Spike McManus (Andrew Polk) turn their attention on striking deals behind the scenes. Rallying the people for Matthews is just a photo op — Conover connives to get vote assurances from big business, labor and agriculture.

If Matthews has to compromise and tamp down his viewpoints, it’s all part of the game.

Yet Matthews believes that America is at war with itself and that political parties are not serving the people but are self-serving entities tearing the nation apart. This kind of egalitarian thinking could cost him the election. He has to make a choice: Does he want to be principled, or does he want to be president?

Although “State of the Union” centers on the Republican Party, its crisp condemnation of special-interest groups and spin doctors is nonpartisan and timely in this season before the 2008 presidential election. The glad-handing rife in politics is rendered in a wickedly funny scene at a dinner party at the Matthews home, where a bunch of false-faces and stuffed shirts gather to pander to the candidate.

Mary, forced to invite Kay, proceeds to get bombed on cocktails with another sidelined political wife, Mrs. Alexander (Nancy Robinette, merrily portraying a Southern lush who does not miss a trick). She drunkenly tells everybody off, realizing that her marriage is as much at stake as Grant’s chances for election.

“The State of the Union” is indeed gabby, but Miss Donnelly keeps the eye engaged with brisk and bright performances, swirly costumes by Wade Laboissonniere that feature the full-skirted suits and frocks of Dior’s “New Look” — plus a dandy bandbox of a set by Kate Edmunds complete with vintage election posters and slogans and a proscenium of TV sets blasting political ads from the 1950s through the present.

The ensemble cast contributes some standout performances, including Floyd King as a chivalrous judge dying to indulge in Capitol Hill gossip but relegated to mixing Sazeracs for his soused wife; Andrew Polk as the jocular, ink-stained wretch Spike McManus; and Naomi Jacobson as a hilariously humorless adviser on international relations.

If only real politicians and their wives were this dashing and entertaining.

***

WHAT: “State of the Union” by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse

WHERE: Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, noon matinees Oct. 12 and 19. Through Oct. 22.

TICKETS: $25 to $52

PHONE: 202/347-4833

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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