The first lady, on the verge of a crackup, wails, "I want to feel vulnerable! . . . I wanna be like Tipper. I want to unravel." Her husband reluctantly agrees to seek family counseling, as long as the therapist will make house calls. When someone named Mrs. Shrunk shows up in the Oval Office for the first session, the first couple charms her with an up-tempo ditty called "They Don't Inhale at Yale."
This is what is known as a reprise.
All that impeachment business was supposedly behind us as we collectively healed, wasn't it? But just in time for Hillary Rodham Clinton's Next Act, several New York-based playwrights are trotting out those unforgettable, archetypal characters once again: In one production, Kenneth Starr, is surrounded by reels of tape, binoculars and a periscope; in another, Slick Willie croons, "We didn't come this far/ To get our hands caught in the cookie jar" and his brainy blond wife wonders where it's all gone wrong.
"The Last Temptation of William Jefferson," a musical comedy at the waayyy-off-Broadway Castillo Theatre in SoHo, is in rehearsal and opens next month. "Starr's Last Tape," a one-man show written by two veteran editors at the Nation, premiered this week at the even-farther-off-Broadway Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass., for five performances that sold out early. They're the latest theatrical examinations of the nation's long-running domestic and political drama--following the New Dramatists' staged readings of Monica Lewinsky's grand jury testimony earlier this year in New York--and they may not be the last.
"I can see why people would be plenty interested," says Todd London, New Dramatists' artistic director. "Theater allows us to see the masks and the people behind the masks."
The production most likely to have a future is the Massachusetts offering, in which Starr--in a location that's unspecified, though his orange jumpsuit offers a clue--is reviewing a massive tape collection as he attempts to compose his memoirs. The title came first, recounts co-playwright Victor Navasky, who was dually inspired by "the absurd existentialism of [Samuel] Beckett's 'Krapp's Last Tape' and the absurd existentialism of the Starr investigation." He persuaded his pal and colleague Richard Lingeman (with whom he'd once written an unproduced musical about McCarthyism) to collaborate.
They wrote the one-act satire last summer, figuring that "it had a shelf life of about 10 minutes," Navasky said. It bounced around town for a while until a friend passed it along to Kate Maguire, the Berkshire Festival's producing director. "I sat and read it and laughed out loud, and that's usually the first sign this play may be good," she recalls.
The show stars an appropriately pale, balding actor named Brian Reddy, imported from Los Angeles. While he's the only person onstage, many others--the Clintons, Linda Tripp, a phone sex operator, Barry Goldwater--appear via tape. By now, Navasky's convinced that the subject remains current because "Starr's never going to go away. And the issues he represents are going to be with us for a long, long time." A number of New York producers are making their way north for a look.
Meanwhile at a weeknight rehearsal here at the tiny Castillo Theatre, playwright-lyricist-director Fred Newman is watching his handiwork unfold: Elizabeth Saliers, playing a first lady named Melanie, and Bill Quinlan as the drawling William Jefferson are telling their new therapist about their nearly 30-year "open marriage," their love of risk-taking ("You and I were Bonnie and Clyde with law degrees," Melanie keens) and their growing disenchantment with politics. Nashville songwriter Annie Roboff provided the music.
Newman, 64, is a practicing therapist himself. He presides over multi-tentacled nonprofit organizations that variously provide therapy, stage his politically themed dramas, run youth programs and publish his books; he's even got a weekend radio call-in show called "Let's Develop." Watching the impeachment crisis at full boil, he reacted shrinkishly: "I was struck by the demonization, how this story's been made into something that denies that, bottom line, these are human beings, real people. I was struck by the callousness. . . . I wanted to write a play that gave them a human face."
So here are Bill and, uh, Melanie, two Yale Law grads seeking professional help while backed by an all-singing, all-dancing chorus of four. The name Clinton never actually appears in "The Last Temptation," but it's clear from the text and the poster (showing a condom-sheathed Washington Monument) who its subjects are, just as it's clear that Newman wishes the real first couple had seen a therapist. "It's a little presumptuous," he says hesitantly, "but, well, I think it might be useful."
The one theater piece that a campaigning Hillary Clinton needn't fear running into is New Dramatists' "The Trials of Monica Lewinsky." The playwrights' organization first presented its staged reading, drawn verbatim from the grand jury testimony, last fall when few Americans outside the Office of Independent Counsel had yet heard the young woman's voice. Taking material right from Starr's report on the Internet, the group collected a cast of 10, including three different actresses as Monica, in what was intended as a one-night stand, an experiment to see whether theater could help humanize this unknown figure.
Then the production was tapped by the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., in March. Festival producer Lou Viola found the reading "tragically funny. The humor came from the fact that you could not believe it; it was inconceivable that these conversations were being held at this level of government. . . . It was so scary you had to laugh."
The New Dramatists ended their evening with Lewinsky preparing for her Barbara Walters interview, an event that actually took place the same night the piece made its Aspen debut. Which was followed by the book, the tour--so much for the theater's role in piercing mystery.
So while other theater folk may still grapple with the questions raised by the whole Lewinsky mess, and hope for an off-Broadway smash, the New Dramatists are finished with the subject. "By the time we were done," Todd London says cheerfully, "I think I and everyone else never wanted to hear her name again."
CAPTION: Follies a deux: Bill Quinlan and Elizabeth Saliers in "The Last Temptation of William Jefferson."
CAPTION: Playwright-lyricist-director Fred Newman, engrossed in a rehearsal for "The Last Temptation of William Jefferson."
CAPTION: What, him worry? Elizabeth Saliers and Bill Quinlan in "Last Temptation."