Chicago Theater Review: BOTH YOUR HOUSES (Remy Bumppo at Greenhouse Theater Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 7, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


“A plague on both your houses!” Without naming either political party, that’s just what Maxwell Anderson wished over 80 years ago through his Pulitzer Prize-winning Both Your Houses. Retrieved from 1933 and given Last Week Tonight urgency by the ever exemplary Remy Bumppo troupe, this well-made play is quite a contemporary departure from Anderson’s more famous Elizabethan trilogy. Indeed it recalls Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in its depiction of a newly elected idealistic reformer (here representing parched farmers in Nevada) who runs afoul of Beltway malfeasance.


The shock of the familiar registers repeatedly in this “follow the money” tale of Congressional graft in action. True, it’s set in the immediate years before F.D.R. and the New Deal made government spending and tax increases necessary tools to end the Depression; they stimulated the economy and got a quarter of the population working again. But some things never change.


Blessed with terrific ensemble work, James Bohnen’s crisp and crackling staging ups the ante in every scene. Including all the usual suspects, Anderson’s cunning cast of caricatures are all too recognizable today—log-rolling, horse-trading, short-sighted pols intent on reelection, which means putting local concerns over the national interest. The result: Boodle built into bills—sweetheart deals where quid pro quo and conflict of interest mean that the devil takes the hindmost. It isn’t quite as nefarious as lobbyists writing legislation, but let’s just say that the steel interests never leave the table empty-handed.


Anderson takes us deep into a very American cesspool: the Cannon Office Building where ethically challenged members of the House Appropriations Committee are all too busy putting together an omnibus spending bill to be voted out of committee and sent to the House, Senate, and finally President (Hoover, alas) for signing. The author dives into the details, concentrating on the plight of the venerable committee chair (Peter A. Davis), a legislative warhorse who has a secret need to get the bill passed: Its passage will ensure that he’s not implicated in a dirty deal that he inherited from his predecessor.


Other cynical, greasy-palms on the committee are “Sol” Fitzmaurice (David Darlow, a deadpan delight in the role originally played by Morris Carnovsky), a heavy-drinking, tart-tongued veteran of a system that he once hoped to fix but now only despises (yet he still wants to build some battleships); Levering (Larry Baldacci), an opportunist who redoubles his efforts now that he’s forgotten his goals; and the ever elegant Miss McMurty (Joanna Riopelle) who just wants overburdened working women to have access to birth control.


Into their midst, like the proverbial broom that sweeps clean, arrives tax-loathing, pragmatic-minded Alan McLean (Chris Amos), a soft-spoken, respectful, young man on a mission. This unfledged congressman will fight “these money-changers in the temple of righteousness.” An enemy of pork-barrel politics, Alan will not go along in order to get along. Yes, this former teacher badly needs to get a dam built to help the Western farmers who sent him here. But, no wheeler-dealer or corrupt compromiser, he wants no part of a bloated bill that wastes taxpayer money on boondoggles, swindles, feather-bedding, gold-bricking, and other raids on the Treasury. (Well, somebody’s got to stop the Japanese beetle at the border.)


But, of course, even with the inside help of Greta “Bus” Nillson (Linda Gillum), the tough-talking, Eve Arden-style secretary, this frustrated progressive runs into the usual brick walls: To get what he wants, he’s got to look the other way as the pols’ grand larceny inflates the bill.

ChrisAmosandElizaStoughton(533x800)Relying on the power of negative psychology, McLean tries to show them up by slipping a poison pill into the process: He entices the wolves to overload the legislation. When it leaves committee, it will look so grotesquely laden with goodies that it will be D.O.A. in the Senate or vetoed by the President. A mere $275 million has been added to a bill that’s supposedly untouchable. But, as Anderson sardonically shows, shame is wasted on these grasping greedsters. It all backfires badly.

Ironically, apart from the obligatory love interest that doesn’t pan out, Both Your Houses has become dated as “Capra’s corn” did not. The New Deal would prove the necessity of wholesale government spending to produce hope and jobs. But the play’s irrelevance as history doesn’t harm this revival. As he showed with Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, Bohnen knows how to stir the pot. Throughout 140 minutes, we care for everything the next 60 seconds will bring. That’s entertainment.

photos by Johnny Knight

Both Your Houses
Remy Bumppo
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Thurs – Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2:30
plus select Wednesdays and matinees
scheduled to end on November 9, 2014
for tickets, call 773.404.7336 or visit Remy Bumppo

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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