Review: “Both Your Houses”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through Nov. 9
Tickets: $42.50-$57.50
Phone: 733-404-7336

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

An idealistic young congressman from a Western state comes to Washington, D.C., to help pass a bill he believes in only to find that his fellow legislators have questionable ethics and self-serving agendas. Deeply shocked, he tries to put things right even if it means reversing his position and disappointing his constituents. But then the situation takes an unexpected turn.

Sounds a lot like Frank Capra’s 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” starring Jimmy Stewart, right?

But it’s not. It’s Maxwell Anderson’s 1933 Pulitzer Prize-winning satire, “Both Your Houses” (as in Shakespeare’s “a plague on….”), which is receiving a thoroughly enjoyable production from Remy Bumppo — with Chicago’s mid-term elections in mind.

There’s an essential difference between the movie and the play, which was originally staged during the Great Deprression just before Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office. While Mr. Smith’s powerful opponents are truly venal, Anderson’s characters are mostly genial men who want to win votes by promoting pet projects or to feather their own nests. As the sardonic old Solomon “Sol” Fitzmaurice (brilliantly played by David Darlow) points out, the tension between capitalism and democracy is a basic tenant of our system of government.

The idealist is the aptly named Alan McClean (Chris Amos), a school teacher from Nevada, who is appointed to the Appropriations Committee. The bill under discussion would provide the funds to complete an already-over-budget dam to get desperately needed water to farmers in his district. But even though he was elected on a platform to pass the bill, he’s beginning to have doubts. In fact, he’s investigating his own election, because he’s discovered his backers include the contractors for the project.

Once in conference, McClean is appalled to find how much pork has been larded onto the bill. Sol wants money for a fleet to summer in his region; Eddie Wister (James Houton) requests millions to refurbish a pair of obsolete battleships; Miss McMurty (Johanna Riopelle), the only woman on the committee, asks for a pittance for family planning. Everyone wants something.

Simeon Gray (Peter A. Davis) is the chairman in charge of trimming enough fat so that the bill won’t be vetoed by the President. He seems to be above reproach but, as it turns out, he’s requisitioned a new penitentiary for his home town not just to help the local economy but also to shore up the bank he owns part of. Not even his daughter/assistant, Marjorie (Eliza Stoughton), knows the worst of it, complicating her conflicting loyalties to her father and McClean, her romantic interest.

Much to Marjorie’s dismay, McClean at first works to get the bill defeated outright with the help of the nonpartisans and Greta “Bus” Nillson (Linda Gillum), a just-fired secretary who knows everyone and everything about Washington. When that idea doesn’t work, he comes up with another, sparked by the way some colleagues are blackmailing Gray to save their bacon. He does a complete about-face and advocates reinstating every morsel of pork in the bill —in the hopes that it will go down under all the weight. The plan backfires, disappointing him but delighting the others.

You might think that watching a bunch of pols sitting around a table debating the fine points of appropriations and jockeying for power would be boring, but under the direction of James Bohnen, Remy Bumppo’s founding artistic director who’s returning for this show, Anderson’s witty dialogue springs to life. Darlow is especially adroit at giving hard-drinking Sol’s cynical observations a trenchant deadpan spin, and Gillum sparkles as the savvy “Bus.” Amos’ silver-voiced McClean contrasts nicely with Davis’ slightly world-weary Gray, and the others — among them Larry Baldacci, Brian Parry, and Noah Simon — fill the conference room with aplomb.

That room is impeccably designed by Yu Shibagaki, and Emily Waecker’s costumes show the same attention to detail. Add Mike Durst’s lighting and Victoria (Toy) Deiorio’s sound design, and whether or not you think politics has changed significantly since Anderson’s time, you’re likely to agree that “Both Your Houses” is a winner.