In this time of Kavanaugh and Ford, our lives seem engulfed by politics, our discourse and doings stuffed with bad banter and bad-mouthing.
Under the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that politics spills onto our theater stages, writ large or small, but omnipresent. Politics plays its part in the stories, the jokes, the speeches given to us by writers, delivered by actors. Because, after all, as the man wrote and probably said: “All the world’s a stage.”
This is true for Edward Gero, one of Washington’s more admired actors, who’s now playing Harry Brock, an abusive, up-from-nothing business tycoon trying to twist arms in Washington with his showgirl mistress Billie Dawn in tow in Garson Kanin’s classic 1945 comedy-drama-political play “Born Yesterday,” at Ford’s Theatre through Oct. 21.
This is also true for multifaceted playwright John Strand, familiar to many Washington-area theatergoers for his sometimes seriously political work — “The Originalist” and “Three Nights in Tehran,” for instance. And now, again, with his 2009 play “Lincolnesque,” described as “a play about politics and madness,” at the Keegan Theatre through Oct. 14.
Gero, a four-time Helen Hays Award winner, is known for his performances at Ford’s, among other venues around town.
“Oh, definitely,” he said. “This play — even though it’s a classic, it’s old and seems to be from another time — is very much pertinent to these days, what’s going on. I’m playing Harry Brock. He’s had no formal education, he’s street-tough, he’s contemptuous of the political class and politicians, but tries to twist their arms and impress them with his accomplishments. It’s basic and contemporary Washington. And there’s the relationship with Billie which seems unequal. It’s classic power in terms of a powerful man with a woman who doesn’t seem to have any. But that changes.”
Especially when the role of Billie is played by the likes of Kimberly Gilbert, a uniquely gifted and original Washington actress.
“Born Yesterday” has had many incarnations. It proved to be an Oscar vehicle for Judy Holliday in the film version that also starred the blustering Broderick Crawford and William Holden. There was also a national touring version starring Ed Asner, adeptly overcoming his Lou Grant persona, and the sweetly acerbic Madeline Kahn.
“There are a lot of things in the play that seem old-fashioned, but they’re really not. And in Ford’s Theatre, somehow things echo all the time. People come in and they look at the presidential box up there.”
An associate professor of drama and department head at George Mason University, Gero has built a solid career as a Shakespearean actor. “Shakespeare is very political when you start to think about it. All the kings struggling to gain power and keep it … Look at what happens to Bolingbroke when he becomes Henry IV.” He’s also portrayed legendary abstract artist Mark Rothko in “Red” and taken a turn as Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.”
Gero’s main gift as an actor is an ability to connect with the audience, as in his portrait of the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in “The Originalist,” a play that happened to be written by John Strand and proved to be hugely successful, complete with a New York run.
Scalia was still alive when “The Originalist” came to life. “I met him and spent time with him and liked him,” Gero said. “But he never came to see the play.”
A flashpoint political figure during his life and after, Scalia figures strongly in the conversations and turmoil raging now over a certain Supreme Court nominee (now confirmed).
Strand came to write “Lincolnesque,” he said, “because I was very upset about the quality of our political discourse. There was a lack of clarity, a total lack of vision and intellect in our national debates during election times and otherwise. There was certainly not any of the kind of language, rhetoric or leadership that Lincoln inspired in his time.
“What we have now is all about winning, or not losing. So I imagined a nebbish, a guy who was speaking and writing like Lincoln almost without knowing it.”
The play involves two brothers: a Capitol Hill speechwriter and a psychiatric outpatient convinced he is Honest Abe reincarnated.
If we hear echoes in “Lincolnesque,” they may not be exactly of Lincoln — “I’ve tried to get as much of Lincoln’s [phrasing] into the play as I can,” Strand said — but perhaps a little bit of Capra, as in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” or Trump, who has said at least once that he is second only to Lincoln among our greatest presidents.
Strand is adept at many styles. Having spent 10 years in France, he has a fondness and gift for stylized and stylish plays in the European manner, like “Lovers and Executioners” and “Lorenzaccio,” an adaptation of Alfred de Musset’s 1834 French classic.
But “Lincolnesque” at Keegan, with its “politics and madness,” and “Born Yesterday” at Ford’s, with its American classic style and resonantly contemporary effect, remind us that politics is all around us, especially these days.