01 October 2015
One has to wonder what propels an artist to pursue one idea at the expense of another, a question you may find yourself asking if you see the play Selection Day, currently being performed by a game cast at Theatre 54 at Shetler Studios in Midtown. The playwright, Paul Buzinski, whose previous works include Madrid and Blueberry Pancakes, is tackling a fight nearly as old as David v. Goliath – science v. religion – and there is no clear-cut winner, either for the characters or for the audience. The story, boosted along by a trio of plucky, high-kicking cheerleaders called The White House Astral Girls (visualize the Rockettes on a glitter-free budget), concerns Tara Whiteman, who, according to the show’s press notes, is the nation’s “first female, atheist, openly-gay President” (though in this highly-liberal version of America, she could just as easily be the second or third). Unfortunately for the country, President Whiteman appears to spend far more time thinking about her libido than she does about the economy, but on the plus side she’s played by Jackie Jenkins, who zeroes in on the character’s irresistible charm and makes it easy to believe that voters would be willing to buy whatever she’s selling, even if the women around her run for their lives.
We begin with a meeting between the President’s chief strategist, Marty (Christopher Romero Wilson, fine here), and Robyn Downs, an evolutionist who attempts to goad Marty into goading the President to declare Darwin’s birthday a holiday in a nation already stripped of Christmas and aglow in gay weddings on TV. (Take that, Kim Davis.) On the flip side, we get Lester Fuks, a creationist who wants to burn the word of God into every living soul and is not above using blackmail to do it (because advancing the holy word ain’t easy in a place like this). The problem is that both characters exist only to espouse a point of view – underneath the surface, each runs about as deep as a thumb tack, a sin of the creator for which the actors try to compensate with frequently overzealous line readings. And let it be said that the performers in these respective roles, Wende O’Reilly and Jed Dickson, deserve a merit badge for trying to turn broth into stew, though it still winds up a rather flavorless concoction. It’s just proof (yet again) that feeding the mind is not the same as nourishing one’s soul.
As a non-religious person, I am the perfect and willing recipient of any work that dismembers the never-ending War of Theorists – i.e., the Darwin cheerleaders who think cold, hard facts should be enough to win the argument and divine interventionists who have turned Darwin’s name into a dirty word.* But the problem with Selection Day is that this isn’t the story you find yourself wanting the author to explore; Buzinski, a fine writer, has such a fascinating back story in President Whiteman that he obviously chose not to ponder, instead going for the science versus religion angle that frankly doesn’t grab you with the same urgency as seeing a female President of the United States standing right in front of you (even if she is make-believe). As noted above, we’ve got plenty of time for another endless debate on the science versus religion subject later. With a woman (excuse me, women) right now running for the real thing in real life, that’s what I wanted Buzinski to talk more about, particularly with an actress as engaging as Jenkins as a stand-in. Regrettably, however, in this story she’s nothing more than a chess piece, pushed back and forth between Downs and Fuks, waiting for a man (her strategist, Marty) to swoop in and save the day (something we’re informed is old hat for him by now, even at the cost of his own personal life).
In the play, we are also taken on a trip through Darwin’s life story, winningly told by the Astral Girls and Kristoffer Infante as Darwin. The original songs by Jeff Paul are appropriately bubbly and the Astrals prove themselves quite adept at quick costume changes. To her credit, director Schnele Wilson keeps things moving at a brisk pace. As it turns out, President Whiteman does have a secret, which I won’t reveal here, but suffice to say it’s something that could undercut her campaign for re-election and bring all the fun and games for our Atheist-in-Chief to an embarrassing end. And once again she’s left by fate and the playwright at the mercy and cunning of Marty, who will make like Superman and fly to her rescue – a shame since this is one politician who clearly has the smarts to rescue herself.
*Such debates also force me to look inward at my own hypocrisy – I have no use for religion yet still believe in God, a combination sinner and good son of the south.