“An American Daughter” is a Clinton play, and the Keegan Theatre is extremely smart to be performing it right now. As Bill Clinton took office, his first two choices as attorney general sank — Zoë Baird and Kimba Wood. During the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton had said she wasn’t the sort to stay home and bake cookies. Scandal!
Wendy Wasserstein’s comic drama disgorged all of this on Broadway in 1997 with an awkwardness that is far from smoothed over by Keegan, the small and busy troupe just off Dupont Circle. Yet the fury is as clear as I’ve ever seen it. Wasserstein creates a fictional woman named Lyssa Dent Hughes whose nomination to be surgeon general is derailed by the idiotic chattering of a celebritainment culture.
Wasserstein inflated a lot of her story into the realm of satire; a brash young feminist is named Quincy Quince, while the TV reporter whose interviews torpedo Hughes’s political chances is Timber Tucker. Lyssa’s husband is reputedly a “brilliant” academic, but we see him as a needy little boy craving public attention. Their friend Morrow is a conservative gay pundit who just sold a project to Hollywood; like many of the characters, he’s full of his own hot air, especially when there’s a camera around.
The characters are rounded out by Lyssa’s father — a Republican senator from Indiana — and Lyssa’s black Jewish doctor friend and confidante, Judith, who’s on some sort of psychotic edge after years of fertility drug treatments.
Maybe big productions can’t help but make all of this feel antic. The script certainly feels approachable in the intimate Keegan, where director Brandon McCoy — a frequent actor around town — guides his highly uneven cast with a light touch. Susan Marie Rhea is especially deft as Lyssa; Rhea smartly soft-pedals the comedy and pretty much everything, except Lyssa’s heartfelt convictions about the surgeon general job.
Standouts in the swirl of outsize figures include Brianna Letourneau (who nails Quincy’s cheerful narcissistic post-feminism) and Lolita Marie (a noble yet human Judith). Best of all, though, are the encounters between Rhea’s Lyssa and the nimble Timber Tucker as played by Michael Innocenti. Tucker has come to do a puff piece on Lyssa, but it takes a turn when grandstander Morrow crows that Lyssa once skated out of jury duty.
Well, okay, she did — it was an oversight, not a symbol of liberal elitist hypocrisy. But who cares? The puff piece blows up, with Rhea and Innocenti aggressively carving into each other as the cameras roll.
Obviously a driving issue for Wasserstein was whether the bar is different for women as the public — or the media and the political barracudas, anyway — vets nominees and candidates. As Lyssa puts on the famous Hillary headband for her own damage-control interview, adopting a role as she gives in to the political charade, the hazards are raised anew of the “woman card,” as it is being shorthanded for the current political cycle.
The show misses on several fronts, including its weirdly bland 1982-ish look for Lyssa’s reputedly old Georgetown home. This is no high-toned “City of Conversation” as recently handled at Arena Stage, yet it’s excellent to have these two Georgetown-set dramas just months apart. Watching how Wasserstein’s prating pundits and too-cagey pols gleefully choose to squabble about everything but the direction of the nation’s health care is enough to make you mad as hell.
An American Daughter, by Wendy Wasserstein. Directed by Brandon McCoy. Set, Matthew J. Keenan; lights, Colin Dieck; costumes, Alison Samantha Johnson; sound design, Tony Angelini. With Mark A. Rhea, Slice Hicks, Timothy H. Lynch, Sheri S. Herren, Zach Norris, Kathleen Manson and Josh Sticklin. About 2 hours, 30 minutes. Through May 28 at the Keegan Theater, 1742 Church Street NW. Tickets: $35-$45. Call 202-265-3767 or visit keegantheatre.com.