Review: Perfect Mendacity by Street Corner Arts
by Michael Meigs
Playwright Jason Wells has contributed a lot to the brand Street Corner Arts has established since their 2011 debut. Perfect Mendacity is the third of his oeuvre they've put on stage at the Hyde Park Theatre, which gives them a clean sweep of this Steppenwolf playwright's 2008 - 2016 work. Men of Tortuga and The North Plan share the same sardonic cynicism about U.S. businesses and government. It's no surprise to learn that his latest work The Engine of Our Ruin, which premiered in LA last year, is about a U.S. diplomat in the Middle East and deals with mistranslations and cross-cultural misunderstandings.
The playwright feeds our unease about the American system. A Jason Wells work is a guilty pleasure, for Austin audiences love watching self-confdent men twist the rules, get things terribly wrong and expose themselves to satisfying comeuppances. But his scripts are much more than agit-prop, for he draws characters with fine cutting lines and positions them in credible dilemmas. The glittering smile of deceit illuminates his plots, and we know just enough to keep us on the edges of our seats. And there's almost always a deft turn at the end, a moment when the hook is set and the prey is captured.
Ph.D. microbiologist Walter Kreutzer, a long-time employee of a mysterious muscled research institute, fears that a leak of classified information can be traced back to him, for he broke the rules by bringing sensitive material home. His data appeared shortly afterward in the press. He believes his Moroccan wife may have been responsible, but he doesn't want to know or ask her. Instead he focuses his energies on trying to get coaching to beat the polygraph test he knows he'll soon have to take.
Director Andrea Skola Summers cast Kenneth Wayne Bradley against type in this one. His familiar Killer Joe Texas macho is nowhere to be seen. Kreutzer struggles with misgivings, works to understand the ordeal ahead of him and does his best to avoid alarming his very verbal wife. Bradley is buffeted psychologically in a lengthy opening two-scene with Reggie Brown, who as the symbolically named D'Avore Peoples is the scornful experienced know-it-all consultant who claims to know how to beat the machine. Brown is bluster, tease and challenging intensity as he delivers mightily in just the sort of KWB character we've come to relish. The scene plays taut and fast as Peoples pushes Kreutzer psychologically while explaining both to him and to us the art of the polygraph. It's anything but a science; it's one tool of the interrogator's game of intimidation.
In the characters' dry runs of the 'gotcha!' Q&A game I was flashing on a close acquaintance who was a candidate not long ago for a highly classified scientific research program. He 'failed' the polygraph test twice because he was angered and offended by the crude questions and insinuations of the examiner. He and other candidates renounced their candidacies at that point, knowing that even if they 'passed' they would be subject to another round of such psychological terrorism within five years.
I have Secretary of State George Schultz to thank for the fact that I never had to endure such browbeating during the decades of my diplomatic career. When Schultz was told of the proposal to polygraph all Foreign Service Officers routinely he responded with a chilly, "Then they'll have to start with me first."
Indigo Rael as Kreutzer's wife Samira is a gust of warm North African passion. She's the light in Kreutzer's otherwise tightly controlled linear world, and it's through her outbursts and needling we learn he's trying to tamp down memories of some horrible things done with his science. Kreutzer's only male confidant the phlegmatic Roger Stanhope is apparently just as much a captive of the corporation as Kreutzer. Michael Stuart plays Stanhope with the Middle-Atlantic accent produced in a Brit by the erosion of too many years in the United States. We never quite know whose side Stanhope's on, especially toward the end when he stands as uneasy witness to Kreutzer's second-stage ordeal as set up by the blandly enthusiastic Dr. Dolf (Brock England).
Perfect Mendacity's two acts fly by in the stark floor-level space created in the playing area of the Hyde Park Theatre. I had the good fortune to attend on 'industry night' Monday when the Street Corner Arts band was surrounded by an intent and enthusiastic crowd of Austin theatre artists and their friends. That knowledgeable audience appreciated a clever well executed script and familiar faces giving strong performances. The evening had just the right mixture of suspense, contradiction and comedy.
It plays one weekend more. And don't forget the opportunity to tip actors and crew afterward by dropping a bill or two in the open guitar case in the lobby. We want them to come back and keep us alert to the incongruities of this American existence.
April 07 - April 22, 2017
511 West 43rd Street
Austin, TX, 78751
8 p.m., Thursdays - Saturdays at the Hyde Park Theatre
Tickets $20 plus service fees. Click HERE to purchase.