The problem with Sen. Joseph McCarthy, conjurer of the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, was that as unreal as his charges were, the hysteria he stage-managed wasn't. The problem with staging McCarthyism is capturing the very human pain he inflicted, while suggesting the peculiar mass hypnosis that gripped the country.
The beauty of Frank Condon's production of Jeff Goldsmith's "McCarthy" at the Odyssey Theatre, is that telling this amazing American chapter looks like no problem at all. And in light of recent congressional hearings, ranging from Ollie North's "off-the-shelf" anti-Communist private armies to testimony on drug-running schemes, "McCarthy" hardly strikes us as amazing.
Which is perhaps the scariest message of all.
Because he is a character, by necessity, of excess, the temptation to theatricalize McCarthy into a mythic "presence" or as an icon of our national guilt is probably very great for the style-minded director. Condon, fortunately, has taken all his cues from Goldsmith's play (his first to be produced), which puts the senator from Wisconsin in a very palpable historical context.
When Condon wants to convey the man's distance from reality, he has Victor Brandt as McCarthy slumped in his office chair, far downstage in the deepest corner of the set, close to the audience, far from the Washington jungle. Nixon's last days in the White House come to mind.
Above all, we're connected with previous great Odyssey productions: the political trial plays ("The Chicago Conspiracy Trial," "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer," both Condon-directed) and the evil-political-men plays (Philip Baker Hall's Hitler in "The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H.," Gene Dynarski's Stalin in "Master Class").
With the addition of "McCarthy," it's hard to think of another theater in town that has so long and consistently taken audiences to the brink of moral terror and profundity in politics.
The difference between Goldsmith's McCarthy and the Stalin and Hitler creations (besides McCarthy being American, and therefore, our own creation) is that the senator is so insecure that he falls for his own line, not being able to come up with a better one to attract attention to himself. This particular line works just fine, thank you, but he still needs a truly confident monster--Ralph Seymour's Roy Cohn, chief counsel on McCarthy's investigating committee--to keep things on course when it looks as though they're crashing head-on into the Constitution--among other things.
Goldsmith, with a fluid intercutting of actual testimony and invented, behind-the-scenes dialogue, follows his best dramatic instincts and makes Cohn the major secondary character, even ahead of McCarthy's secretary and eventual wife, Jean Kerr (Maureen McCormick). The 25-year-old Cohn is the enfant terrible in the driver's seat, who is also instrumental in ushering in McCarthy's collapse.
Goldsmith's other good choice was to jettison the Hollywood witch hunt episodes, and bore in on McCarthy's curious personal relationships; on Cohn and his assistant, G. David Schine (Christopher Babson), and on the infamous, convoluted (though clarified here) "Army-McCarthy hearings," when McCarthy's colleagues finally worked up the nerve to go after the demagogue.
"McCarthy," as much as anything, is a study in weak men horribly compensating for what they see as shortcomings. Joe's a big boxing fan, and, in one of the play's best scenes, he cajoles the newly hired Cohn into a little match that turns ugly. The dance of macho shadowboxing that is the play's repeated motif is perhaps its most original insight: It links Jean's taunting of Joe when she wonders if he isn't more "interested" in Cohn than in her, with McCarthy's merciless badgering of witnesses.
Watching Brandt's McCarthy is like witnessing a man in a prizefight with himself; it is a gripping portrait of a man pummelling himself into ignoble submission.
His victims and enemies provide the vibrant counterforce in the drama, empowered by Condon's supporting, exceptionally chosen cast. C. Thomas Cunliffe is a ringing Joseph N. Welch (who delivered the famous retort, "Have you no shame , sir?"); Loren Farmer switches from an imposing Sen. Benton to a mousy William Mandell; Peter Henry Schroeder creates brief portraits of noble victims (a senator and brigadier general); David Selburg's Sen. Hennings and Henry Jackson (as well as a wonderful Republican convention announcer) solidify the production's verisimilitude.
McCormick's Jean Kerr does not, which creates real difficulties when she faces off against Cohn for Joe's ear and confidence. In McCormick's currently unstable hands, Jean doesn't have a chance against Cohn's tempests; in Seymour's brilliant hands, Cohn is a living terror.
McCarthyism fed a multimedia spectacle, artfully seen here through both Christa Bartels' set of courtroom furniture juxtaposed against ceiling-to-floor displays of newspaper images, and Vincent Landay's meticulous sound design and slide displays (don't miss Landay's witty snippets of period tunes). Martha Ferrara's costumes are pure Beltway, and Doc Ballard's lighting makes a small stage seem larger. It's an illusion Joe McCarthy might have enjoyed.
Performances are at 12111 Ohio Ave . , on Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m. Runs indefinitely. Tickets: $13.50-$17.50; (213) 826-1626.