'White House' Romps in the Beast Wing
By Tracy Grant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Sometimes you're lucky.
Sometimes you're good.
In the case of the Kennedy Center's production of "Unleashed! The Secret Lives of White House Pets," sometimes you're both.
Lucky, because the family-friendly story of an African American girl moving into the White House with her dog was commissioned in 2007, long before Malia and Sasha Obama became part of our national conversation.
Good, because Allyson Currin's script manages just the right giggle-inducing puns and chortle-inducing political references to keep the 7-to-10-year-old set and their parents engaged.
As the play opens, Alastair Lodge (Jessica Frances Dukes), the nation's new first daughter, is checking out her new home, excitedly telling her timid Chihuahua, Tipp (Matthew McGloin), about all the wonders the nation's house holds, including a swimming pool, movie theater and pastry kitchen. But her excitement is soon tempered when an officious White House staffer (Tony Nam) shows her the schedule of public events and suggests that though the Chihuahua might have helped her father win California, it is time to trade Tipp in for a "more American dog" -- such as a Labrador or a German shepherd.
As the idea of living with the public scrutiny that comes with being first daughter and first dog threatens to overwhelm Alastair and Tipp, White House usher Max (James Konicek) offers to magically transport them to a time when they felt safe and secure. The two eagerly flee the presidential mansion, but Tipp does the one thing that Max has warned them not to do -- and they find themselves not back in Alastair's treehouse when she was 8, but rather in the Civil War White House of 1863.
Thus begins an eight-stop voyage through history during which the twosome encounter Tad Lincoln (Melissa Flaim) and his pet goats, among many other characters. It's then that the play hits its stride and fully engages its audience. It's hard to imagine that during the White House's 200-plus-year history, the president's desk has been danced on as much as during this 75-minute production. But such theatrical excesses can be forgiven when juxtaposed against the poignancy of young Tad noting that everyone is so busy with the Civil War that there's no one to scold him when he misbehaves.
The sense of time travel is achieved by the use of swirling, vaguely psychedelic lights that serve to liven up the oddly monochromatic set. Some of the costumes are surprisingly subtle for a show aimed at youngsters. Thomas Jefferson's mockingbird, Dick (Nam), looks more presidential than ornithological, but Nam's very funny parroting of the dialogue soon has even the most novice theatergoers catching on. The bird proudly shows Alastair and Tipp where he "left my mark on history" on the Louisiana Purchase, and the floodgates open to a series of poop jokes. (You thought you'd get through a play written for kids about pets without poop jokes, perhaps?)
At each stop along the way (and the eight might be one too many for some kids), Alastair and Tipp get advice from the pets on how to make the most of life in the White House. But it is not until they encounter "the big three" of White House pets, FDR's dog Fala (Nam), Warren G. Harding's Airedale, Laddie Boy (Konicek), and the George H.W. Bush's springer spaniel, Millie (Dawn Ursula), that some of that advice begins to sink in.
Nam, Konicek and Ursula steal the show as a trio of self-absorbed, self-impressed canines. Fala comes off as conceited, and Millie is clearly fed up with his bombast. The expression on Ursula's face as she dutifully waves the American flag while Fala elucidates his accomplishments is priceless.
Tipp sees through the pomposity of the pooches. When he finally asserts himself and pronounces himself "the premier Chihuahua," adults and children alike happily share in his triumph.
It's impossible to watch Alastair's understandable ambivalence about her new home without thinking of the White House's two new, young inhabitants. We can only hope that they have an adult as kindly as Max -- if not his talking menagerie -- to help them with the transition.
Unleashed! The Secret Lives of White House Pets, written by Allyson Currin. Directed by Nick Olcott. About 75 minutes.