Theater Reviews

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Venue: Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City (Through July 27).

The Center Theatre Group continues its assault on dead American presidents with the world premiere of Tanya Barfield’s mind-bending expose of Woodrow Wilson. Earlier this year at the the Kirk Douglas Theatre, Old Hickory took a lickin’ in Alex Timbers’ “Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson.” Can that notorious bookworm, Millard Fillmore, be next?

In presenting a pointedly black take on Wilson, Barfield focuses on the racial policies which set back the cause of black civil rights at the federal level until the Truman administration. It’s customary for whites to see Wilson as an admirable but failed liberal, but the truth paints a less savory picture, and Barfield is right in reopening the case. The subjective fury with which she brutally nails Wilson for his vain, egocentric and vacillating character is the key to how blind she believes the white mainstream can be.

Barfield signals her position by making the three black characters — a White House stenographer (Michole Briana White), her aspiring artist brother (Christopher O’neal Warren) and her noble journalist cousin (Joseph C. Phillips) — the play’s only well-grounded, “normal” characters. The whites, in stark contrast, are either corrupt, cowardly, abusive, or combinations of the three. Barfield seems to be saying that, given such a perspective, you don’t need to make a federal case out of it, that truth will prevail.

The downside is that, given the relative obscurity of the history lesson, and the avalanche of detail with which Barfield and director Leigh Silverman litter the two hours, “Of Equal Measure” may fail to capture the public’s imagination as a theatrical entertainment. It’s a problem compounded by Barfield’s apparent lack of deep personal emotional investment in the characters and the issues beyond their obvious merit, and a lack of convincing relevance to the current Washington scene.

The production’s strength is its enthusiastic cast and surface vitality as the action proceeds in a series of staccato episodes, accompanied by increasingly frequent (and distracting) scene changes.

Lawrence Pressman busts a gut as a disastrously neurotic President who’s falling to pieces while trying to deal with war at home and abroad and a host of landmark social and financial issues. Ironically, the audience’s sketchy knowledge of the 28th President moves them to laughter when he complains about the severe headaches which presage the stroke that would eventually incapacitate him.

JD Coulomb is deeply eloquent as Wilson’s Irish private secretary, Phillips commanding as the heroine’s cousin, and White quietly impressive in a small-scale way as the heroine (her lack of conventional sex appeal is a subtle indicator that her Simon Legree boss is after purely interracial thrills).

As her boss, Michael T. Weiss creates an unnervingly ambiguous portrayal. As the brother, Warren simmers with an extraordinary sense of repressed power. As the Secretary of State, a fulminating Dennis Cockrum has to fill in the story line way too much. As a black-garbed secret agent out of Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy,” T. Ryder Smith casts a sinister pall over the hasty, fireworks-enlivened finale.

It’s clear that Barfield has an intriguing idea. It’s not clear whether it’s the play or the production that’s not up to the idea. It just may be that “Of Equal Measure” is such a mind-bending look at history that Barfield and Silverman deliberately decided to let the truth sink in on the audience’s ride home in the belief that truth will prevail.

Cast: Michole Briana White, Lawrence Pressman, Michael T. Weiss, JD Cullum, Joseph C. Phillips, Christopher O'neal Warren, Dennis Cockrum, T. Ryder Smith. Playwright: Tanya Barfield. Director: Leigh Silverman. Set designers: Richard Hoover, Sibyl Wickersheimer. Costume designer: Rachel Myers. Casting: Bonnie Grisan.

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