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‘Mastergate,’ Political Satire by Larry Gelbart, Opens on Broadway

October 13, 1989

NEW YORK (AP) _ Obfuscation is the name of the game in bureaucratic Washington, and Larry Gelbart is a master of mimicking the gobbledygook that passes for communication under the Capitol dome and in the White House.

But his sense of theater is stretched mighty thin in ″Mastergate,″ a relentlessly one-note spoof of the Iran-Contra hearings that opened Thursday at Broadway’s Criterion Center.

″What did the president know, and does he have any idea that he knew it?″ Gelbart asks. It’s a funny line, but the question is never really answered in this satire that would rather play with words than plot or character for 90 long minutes.

″Mastergate″ focuses on fictional congressional hearings held by something called the Permanent Select Joint Committee. It discovers a scheme by the Central Intelligence Agency to take over Master Pictures, a big Hollywood film studio. Through its filming of a Vietnam war epic called ″Tet: The Movie,″ the government-controlled studio is funneling money to Los Oltros, freedom-fighting guerrillas in the Central American country of Ambigua.

Among the public servants called to appear before the committee are the vice president, the secretary of state and a gung-ho, media-savvy military officer named Manley Battle, the nation’s only four-star major, who bears more than a slight resemblance to Oliver North.

″Publicity is a small price to pay for security,″ testifies Battle while his wife, knitting an American flag, sits adoringly beside him.

The spoofing is broad and more than a little obvious as Gelbart attempts to dazzle with quips, doubletalk, bad puns and a few hilarious sight gags. Check out the look a certain gray-haired, pearl-bedecked wife of the vice president gives her husband when he testifies. Or Maj. Battle’s medals, so numerous his lawyer has to wear some of them on his lapel.

Designer Philipp Jung’s hearing room, with a hokey backdrop of the Founding Fathers, spreads out all over the wide stage and even up into the auditorium where the congressional inquisitors sit.

″Those who forget the past are certain to be subpoenaed,″ drawls a Southern senator played with the right amount of bourbon befuddlement by Jerome Kilty.

Between witnesses, an intense televison newswoman, Merry Chase for Total Network News, recaps events for the folks out in television land. She has her own jargon, just as difficult to decipher as the governmental chatter.

The debasement of language is a major theme of Gelbart’s play. Everyone has been co-opted, he seems to be saying, politicians, the public and even the press. Maybe that’s why a few of the reporters are played by mannequins.

Within the cartoon limits of the characters, two actors stand out - Daniel von Bargen as the mad major, and Jeff Weiss, a triple-threat man who plays a right-wing senator, a liberal congressman and the departed CIA chief.

Director Michael Engler tries hard to keep the play from droning on like a real congressional committee meeting. There are jarring lighting and music effects to keep theatergoers awake. And if they get tired of looking at the stage, the audience can watch the show on television monitors scattered throughout the theater.

In the end, Gelbart’s wordplay turns preachy with the appearance of the dead CIA director looking like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past. He warns of future scandals if the public isn’t vigilant - which is hardly surprising advice. It’s a somber and uninspired conclusion to a play that telegraphs where it’s going in the first few minutes of the evening and then keeps recycling variations of the same jokes in an attempt to get laughs.

What other critics said:

Frank Rich, The New York Times: When ″Mastergate″ is funny, it is very funny. When it is not, it still stands up for a patriotic integrity beyond the understanding of the clowns who parade across its national stage.

Howard Kissel, Daily News: If you think the title is funny, you’ll probably enjoy ″Mastergate.″ If you find it adolescent, which I’m afraid I do, stay home and read Mark Twain on politics.

Linda Winer, Newsday: ″Mastergate″ ... is a one-joke extended sketch that, unfortunately, never manages the leap to dramatic - much less philosophical - revelation of much we didn’t already know. Nevertheless, the joke is a very good one, performed with deadpan delight by deft imitators.

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