THEATER : Doing D.C. to Death : Sidney Blumenthal’s radio play takes a satiric swipe at something he knows well: the insularity of Washington and its elite press corps.
The ballroom at the Double Tree Guest Suites hotel in Santa Monica is abuzz with pre-play anticipation. This is the final night of a four-day run of Sidney Blumenthal’s Washington press corps comedy “This Town,” the opening entry in L.A. Theatre Works’ Fall radio theater series.
Onstage, a row of microphones stands, stage right, in front of a row of unremarkable orange hotel chairs. Stage left, a woman with short brown hair and a large headset sits behind a bank of recording equipment and a cache of sound effects props.
The room is packed, as it often is for the radio plays, though this is not exactly the usual crowd. Interspersed with loyal subscribers and interested others are a smattering of folks who have clearly been drawn by the nature of this particular play.
There are journalists and political consultants, pollsters and other power players--a number of whom, in one way or another, have been connected with the current White House Administration.
Blumenthal is, after all, a well known political commentator, author of four books, and a high-profile political correspondent for The New Yorker. And what he has to say about Washington and the media is likely to interest anybody who follows closely what goes on inside the Beltway.
When the room falls silent, the cast of well-known stage, television and film actors troops in, and the play gets underway.
What pours forth is a piquant hybrid of George S. Kaufman-esque wit, rapid-fire pacing and insider’s insight. And the chuckles and guffaws that the audience shoots back in response are as much laughter of recognition as amusement.
In the journalist-turned-dramatist tradition of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s “The Front Page,” Blumenthal has penned a biting satire about the media “shark tank” also known as the elite D.C. press corps. With a look at the chaos surrounding a first family not unlike the Clintons, the play focuses on a coven of media figures who bear more than a little resemblance to certain high-profile network correspondents and print journalists.
Recorded live during October performances, “This Town” airs next Sunday on KCRW 89.9 FM. Directed by Ron West, the cast includes the familiar TV faces of Richard Kind and Gates McFadden, as well as the Tony award-winning actor John Randolph.
But listeners should expect neither the usual Hollywood gloss on Washington, nor a reverent account of Watergate-era journalism. “I hope my play is in the tradition of Henry Adams’ novel ‘Democracy,’ which is a satire of Washington written about the Grant administration,” says the first-time playwright of his serious-minded comedy of manners.
“My play is the opposite of glamorization,” Blumenthal continues. “The play is about the insularity of Washington, its claustrophobia, and the world of a certain segment of the national press corps.
“This is the diametric opposite of the world depicted in ‘All the President’s Men’ and Ben Bradlee’s memoir. This is that world a generation after. Among other things, the Fourth Estate has risen to become the social elite in Washington.”
Blumenthal’s dive into drama began a year ago, with a social gathering at the home of the Australian ambassador in Washington, where Blumenthal, 46, lives with his wife and two children.
“One evening he passed out copies of an Australian play about people waiting [on an election night] for the Labor Party victory, and he made us read this thing,” says Blumenthal, over breakfast in a Santa Monica deli, when he was in Los Angeles preparing for the live performances of “This Town.”
The experience prompted Blumenthal to respond--or rather, retaliate. “The next time we showed up for dinner, I thought I’d return the favor,” he says. “I passed out the first scene of a play and made them act it out.”
At the time, though, he wasn’t sure where, if anywhere, he was going with it. “I didn’t do this just as an entertainment for after dinner, although I think that’s a really good way to start doing a play,” Blumenthal says. “I wound up doing this whole play after that.”
Blumenthal found inspiration in some recent travel and reading experiences. “I had been in London and had been reading some English plays by David Hare,” he says. Also, “My friends encouraged me to do it.”
Playwrighting, he discovered, was a welcome change of pace from journalism. “It’s a liberating form,” says Blumenthal. “I have no trouble making things up, and I can tell the difference. Artistic license allows you to say things that get closer to the bone of the truth than journalism.”
That truth, in this case, is about the potentially malignant effect of a journalist’s personal agenda on his or her coverage--which makes Blumenthal’s play topical in a way that few American scripts today are.
“There is virtually no contemporary American political theater, whereas there is theater about identity, of all sorts,” he says.
In part, that’s due to the “split-capital” notion of American power, which makes Washington the hub of government, but New York the de facto capital of culture “Washington,” says Blumenthal, “is a city that exists for one purpose. The place is awash in punditry, but the traditional forms of culture are removed from the political.”
Yet that doesn’t mean there is no audience, in Washington or elsewhere, for topical political satire: “My feeling is that people are interested in this sort of thing,” Blumenthal says.
In fact, there’s probably more than a little overlap between Blumenthal’s New Yorker readers and such an audience. “Theater is the oldest form of political commentary,” Blumenthal says. “It antedates columnists by centuries here. The political columnist is a very recent invention here.”
A s political columnists go, how ever, Blumenthal himself is by no means a recent invention.
Born in Chicago, Blumenthal attended Brandeis University before going directly into journalism. He wrote for alternative weekly papers in Boston, then moved to more mainstream publications such as the Boston Globe Magazine and the New York Times Magazine.
His first book, published in 1980, was “The Permanent Campaign,” which depicted the shift in politics from the world of political parties to that of consultants.
In 1983-84, Blumenthal covered the presidential campaign for The New Republic. He then spent from 1985 to 1989 at the Washington Post.
In addition to a return stint at TNR and a year as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair in 1992, he has edited two books and written three more, including the 1990 “Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War.”
Most recently, however, he has focused on his writings in The New Yorker--and his first play.
An early version of “This Town” was given a reading in Washington, with such Beltway knowledgeables as former Carter administration official Hodding Carter and Voice of America director Geoff Cowan participating.
Political commentator and author William Schneider, of CNN fame, then told a colleague who happened to be on L.A. Theatre Works’ board about the play, and that brought the script to the attention of the company’s producing director Susan Albert Loewenberg.
Loewenberg, who will next produce “This Town” as a radio play in Chicago in January, was drawn to the play’s spirit. “I have always been a fan of the outrageous,” she says, speaking by phone from the East Coast, where she was attending to business in D.C. and elsewhere.
“It seemed to me that [‘This Town’] was an audacious and shamelessly satirical look at journalistic shenanigans inside the beltway, [written] by somebody who knew what he was talking about,” Loewenberg continues. “It had the ring of truth.”
Loewenberg, who is active in politics herself and serves as Clinton’s appointee to the board of federal prison industries, also responded to Blumenthal’s other agenda--addressing the way politics is covered in this country.
Blumenthal sees a decline in journalistic method and motivation, compared to the heady days when the Post broke open the Watergate scandal. “Their use of the investigative method had an appropriate subject and served a larger purpose,” he says of journalists at that time.
“Their sense of fact hadn’t been warped in the ways that they have been warped in the world of journalism since, by the coming of the big casino in Washington: television talk shows, lecture fees, desire to be a celebrity.”
Operating under the guise of journalist objectivity, reporters often pursue strategies that are more about their own careers than the issues of the day. “Many people believe that they can uphold aloft the banner of objectivity--a philosophical position which has no standing in any field except journalism--and remain immune from the contamination of outside influence and manipulation,” Blumenthal says.
“In fact, they live in a teeming world of influence and manipulators who are constantly preying on them. All of the impinging forces on that press pool are creating terrible anxieties in some people.”
A case in point of such distorted, misprioritized coverage is the so-called Whitewater “scandal,” a non-event that Blumenthal likens to the brouhaha in his play about the presidential pet.
“In my play, the scandal’s about the White House dog,” he says. “I believe this scandal is more real than Whitewater.”
Still, in order to draw attention to the problems of press distortion, Blumenthal had to leave out other key factors affecting D.C. today. “The play does not deal with the effect of the rise of the right wing in Washington, which is a tremendous influence,” he says.
“I think that the press corps has been pulled along to a degree in the conservative drift,” Blumenthal continues. “But if you deal with that, then the play is about that, and that’s not what this play is about.”
“This Town” airs on KCRW, 89.9 FM, Nov. 26, 6 p.m.