For nearly a decade and a half, tucked away between Franklin and Hollywood Blvd the Write Act Repertory Company has been the “little engine that could” of L.A. Theater, staging upwards of a hundred productions while overcoming obstacles that have challenged many a larger theater. Granted, at times their efforts fall flat, but they do with regularity bat one out of the park. They are one of the quintessential examples of what impedes small theater in L.A. as well as what extols its immense potential. In its current production of Dennis Richard’s “Oswald” we see shades of each.
Nothing is so polarizing as the topic of the Kennedy Assassination. According to most polls on the subject, the majority of Americans still seem convinced that a vast conspiracy was behind this tragedy and that Oswald, as he proclaimed, was merely a “patsy”. The various wild and wooly theories of multiple shooters, mysterious deaths, magic bullets, and the involvement of everyone from the Mafia to the Mormon Church stand as a cautionary reminder: What is to be feared the most is not what people don’t know, but what they think they do.
In the interest of full disclosure let me state that I group JFK conspiracy theorists right along with Holocaust deniers, those who believe 9/11 and the Oklahoma bombing were CIA operations, that Shakespeare didn’t write the 37 plays attributed to him, the moon landing was filmed in a Hollywood studio and that FDR knew in advance about the attack on Pearl Harbor and let it happen.
Those who hold any of the above opinions are ill-informed, misinformed or uninformed. Period.
After his arrest Oswald spent from 2 p.m. Friday November 22 until 11:21 a.m. Sunday the 24th at the Dallas Police Headquarters. During this time he was interrogated twice. Typical of the second rate dog and pony show that was the Dallas Police, neither of these interrogations were taped, recorded or taken down by a stenographer. Perhaps the primary reason that Oswald has mutated into the great monster under this nation’s bed is that for most Americans he is an unknown quantity. Playwright Richard has tried to remedy that by exposing the little man behind the curtain.
Taking the notes made by Captain Will Fritz and the testimonies of others present during the time Oswald was in custody, Richard has woven a thoroughly thought provoking evening that allows an audience to see Lee Harvey Oswald for what he was. Not “patsy”, not arch-plotter, but punk. Richard shows that Oswald was caught in lie after lie, and how even a second rate police department was able to gather enough evidence against him to almost assure his conviction had he lived to face trial.
More importantly Richard captures the essence of Oswald, an arrogant little narcissist with delusions of grandeur, a product of a dysfunctional upbringing whose subpar intellect would have placed delusions of adequacy outside of his attainment.
To the questions put to him, he replies:
“My story will come out.” and “When the time is right my story will come up.”
When an explanation is demanded for his bizarre detachment in the face of the charges before him he smugly responds, “I have my reasons for what I do.”
Richard skillfully portrays Oswald for what he was, a little nobody who had finally placed himself center stage before a captive audience. Like Hitler after the Beer Putsch or John Brown following Harper’s Ferry, in his muddled reasoning Oswald expected to take the witness stand and turn it into a pulpit. But Oswald was not to have that opportunity. The grand Wagnerian epic Oswald imagined for himself was turned into a short one act farce by a single shot from Jack Ruby’s revolver. (And no he wasn’t a mob hit man, he was “meshugge” – even his Rabbi said so!) It is telling that anyone who knew Oswald, including his older brother Robert, never doubted his guilt in the murder of JFK. Richard has succeeded in showing us that Oswald.
The cast offers some stand out performances. David Lee Garver is excellent as Assistant DA Bill Alexander whose refusal to clear the press from the station during Oswald’s transfer would doom the assassin. Bert Pigg is first-class in his brief appearance as postal inspector Harry Holmes, an American Everyman, meat-and-potatoes public servant who ties Oswald’s PO Box to the rifle used in the shooting. The main pillar of the show is Andrew Perez as Oswald himself. Perez takes us down the dark labyrinth of Oswald’s soul artfully and in doing so holding our rapt attention.
It is in the direction where sadly the most troublesome fault lies, and it pains me to say so. L.A. small theater owes a debt of gratitude to Director Richmond Shepard. When theaters in this town were hidden down back streets in Hollywood or down long alleys in Santa Monica, Shepard almost singlehandedly gave this city if not an “off-Broadway” then at least an “off-off-off-Broadway”. One space at a time, Shepard build theaters in a large rambling building on Santa Monica Blvd in Hollywood. The Complex, which is still there today, gave rise to Los Angeles’ first “theater district”.
Unfortunately his direction fails the play’s most essential and elemental need, that of context.
The assassination of John Kennedy was radically different from any other in American history; in 1963 television was still a “novelty”. The Nixon-Kennedy debates were the very first televised and by most accounts profoundly altered the outcome of the election. Television had allowed us to tour the White House with Jackie and had forced us to face how near we came to nuclear annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis. Now it would place the murder of a president and his assassin in our living rooms. It was those three days in Dallas that saw the “novelty” evolve into the “medium”.
The country was gripped in the fear and hysteria spiraling out from the events of those days, with the intensity of each increasing exponentially as one moved through the state of Texas closing in on the city of Dallas and finally arriving at the epicenter located in the Dallas Police Headquarters.
William Manchester’s brilliant “Death of a President” conveys the mad fury that gripped the officials in Dallas which was fueled by uncertainty and the paranoid suspicion that the shooting was the beginning of a Russian attack. That frenzy is entirely lacking from this production. Doors are opened casually not flung, men saunter into rooms rather than burst into them, conversations are not fired by urgency, and outside the offices we hear silence when in fact there was a constant rumble of hundreds of news teams, police, secret service personnel and others. Neither the weight of the world nor the eyes of the nation are felt on the stage, as they definitely were back in November of 1963. As an audience, we are at the eye of the storm, except that the storm is missing.
This is regrettable for its failure to represent the historical tempo of the events. However the greater loss arises in the failing to depict the manic motion whipped by fear, anger, rage, helplessness and despair where within was an unnatural stillness. A presence of glacier arrogance gazing out at those scurrying about him, Oswald. We need this contrast in order to see Oswald clearly. Accused of the murder of patrolman Tippit and the President, he is not racked by terror over the charges, not bellowing his innocence, but instead raising a clenched fist in defiance to the reporters and bragging of his knowledge of Marxism. Whose greatest concern is that his white t-shirt is making him look washed out on the TV news.* This is not a man wrongly charged with horrific crimes, this is a man who is exactly where he wants to be – top of the world, ma!
I still heartily recommend “Oswald” whose faults cannot detract from the insights offered. Richard has adeptly crafted a work that places Lee Harvey Oswald before us so that we may see for ourselves that what was most monstrous about this little man was how tragically human he was.
* It was Oswald’s insistence that he be allowed to change his clothes that delayed his transfer long enough to allow a curious Ruby at the Western Union office – where he had wired money to an employee – to cross the street to the police station and see what all the fuss was about.
Write Act Repertory Theatre
6128 Yucca Street
Hollywood, CA 90028
Playing thru February 18th Thursday to Saturday at 8pm
Tickets – $25 General / $20 Seniors-Students-Groups