Off-Broadway Theatre Review: OUR MAN IN SANTIAGO (AMT Theater)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on September 18, 2022

in Theater-New York


Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Does America export democracy or expand empire? Can an idealistic young man maintain his ideals in the harsh reality of working in the field for the CIA? These are just a few of the questions posed in Mark Wilding’s new play Our Man in Santiago, now in performance at the AMT theater on 45th street. The show’s tagline states that it is a “New Comic Spy Thriller” and it certainly is all of those. However, underneath the mirth and false identities and ineptitude and a running debate about the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken”, Wilding seems to be asking us to consider what, exactly, is going on around the world in the name of “…freedom, justice and the American Way.”

Nick McDow Musleh and George Tovar

Wilding is a very good writer and the play has intelligent dialogue and plotting that offers some genuine surprises and unexpected turns. The play cleverly operates on two levels — what’s happening on stage and what the stage actions imply about current American operations worldwide, even as this play occurs in 1973. Once the farcical aspect of the play kicks in, and boy does it ever, the pace quickens and the ride goes faster and deeper with every twist and turn. But almost every time the comedy ratchets up to a high point, Wilding also hits us with a very real revelation or insight about the lives of people both in and outside of the CIA. These effective juxtapositions remind us that while this is a comedy, it deals with some very serious subjects. Wilding’s weaving of these two threads is quite masterful — there certainly are raucous, comedic moments but the deeper considerations the play accesses keep it in both thoughtful consideration and wacky, farce territory.

Presciliana Esparolini, George Tovar, and Nick McDow Muslah

The play basically begins with our man in Santiago, actually two of our men in Santiago, one a young, bumbling newbie recently stationed in New Zealand and an older, experienced CIA officer, currently stationed in Santiago. The older agent, Jack Wilson, is considering the new agent, Daniel Baker, for a dangerous assignment. Jack is looking to expedite an overthrow of Salvador Allende’s Chilean government, with Allende’s palace located directly across the street from the hotel where Jack and Daniel are meeting. Jack wants to place Daniel undercover in the palace as a journalist to be Jack’s eyes and ears to the overthrow and, if necessary, assassinate Allende himself. That Daniel is idealistic and fundamentally opposed to the idea of overthrowing a democratically elected leader, on top of being woefully undertrained for an assignment like this, does not seem to concern Jack too much.

Nick McDow Musleh, Steve Nevil, Presciliana Esparolini, Michael Van Duzer, and George Tovar

Both Nixon and Kissinger are unofficially keeping close eyes on this operation with Jack in direct communication with them. If Jack can deliver the result Nixon wants, Jack is sure to be promoted to a very plum position in Washington. In the meantime, there is an innocuous, Chilean hotel maid named Maria Troncoso who goes in and out of their room for a multitude of innocuous, Chilean hotel reasons. But since we’re dealing with the CIA, little is as it appears and soon comes the laughs, gasps, blood, murders, comp-lit perspectives and a side-splitting interpretation of the Nixon/Kissinger relationship as if seen through the eyes of the late Buck Henry. All of which and more keep the audience entertained and engaged for the duration.

George Tovar and Presciliana Esparolini

As the senior CIA agent Jack Wilson, actor George Tovar proves a very strong villain, if there is such a thing in a world where everything is transactional and mostly grey. He is equal parts charming, intelligent, slippery, ambitious, ruthless, rude and definitely not to be trusted — as much a victim as a perpetrator of the system. As the younger agent Daniel Baker, Nick McDow Musleh displays a great facility in the handling of the mountains of text his role demands on top of the physical comedy he does very well. Musleh is also a stand-out as the evolving heart of this piece and in what he begrudgingly learns from Jack about the road to career advancement. As the maid Maria, Presciliana Esparolini stuns as a woman surviving in multiple worlds. She is doing what she has to do to survive but uses that basic survival to also advance to what she wants. You believe her when she says she once lived in an apartment with six other hotel maids, as well as all the other surprises her character reveals. The other two actors in the ensemble, Steve Nevil as Richard Nixon and Michael Van Duzer as Henry Kissinger are simply hilarious. Some of the night’s biggest laughs come from their old-school, comedy team style of interplay. These are five very fine and funny actors who, under Charlie Mount’s assured and fast-paced direction, play very well off of each other.

Michael Van Duzer and Steve Nevil

There is one big hole in the plotting where a character does not take an action that would seem essential from that person’s perspective. However, had that action been realized, the play would probably have been much shorter. So that’s a writing choice that I suppose can be forgiven for the greater good of the play. And in Our Man in Santiago, Wilding is partly showing how sometimes expedient decisions have to be made for the greater good. The question being, however, who decides what’s good?

Presciliana Esparolini and George Tovar

photos by Charlie Mount

Our Man in Santiago
AMT Theater, 354 W 45th St.
Wed at 2:30 and 7:30; Thurs and Fri at 7:30; Sat at 2:30 and 8; and Sun at 2:30
(one additional performance on Tues Oct. 25 at 7:30)
ends on October 28, 2022
for tickets, ($49-$79), visit Our Man in Santiago

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