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The Diplomats

Diplomat, The FIG_1558-1024x683


So This is What the Foreign Service is all About!

“The Diplomats”, written and directed by Martin Schwartz, has its world premiere at Exit Theatre, and there are several aspects to commend it that are the basis for good theater. The core story line offers a good vehicle for farce and is imbued with timeless social and political commentary. The secondary theme gives it depth and timeliness. For the greater part, the cast is quite competent and soldiers through the performance with aplomb.

The theatrical design effects are suited to the work. A curved curtain backdrop with several access points allows entrances onto a simple stage, and when the corners are opened, niches with additional sets for specific locales are revealed. The lighting is sound, and the sound lights up the ear. That said, the script needs considerable work. Especially with farce, it is better that the audience leaves wanting more. In this case, tightening is needed – eliminating some scenes,  like those concerning investiture and Mamamoushi (?), that aren’t essential to the two main threads and condensing the whole proceedings to perhaps 70-80 minutes of mayhem.

The basic premise is clever. In a hypothetical Central Asian “republic”, four western diplomats – cultural attachés – have organized a performance festival, highlighted by a play called “The West Laughs”. The imported troupe of performers of the play are called “The Cultural Attachés”, and thus ensues complications. Shortly before the festival, the U.S. diplomat receives a cable from the troupe, which refuses to appear in protest of western countries propping up a repressive government. This reveals the more serious theme of illegitimate regimes casting any opposition as terrorists and eliminating them. Meantime, the diplomats review the script of play, finding it morally repugnant by local standards. Yet, for different reasons, the U.S. Ambassador and the host nation’s Deputy Minister of Information are determined that the show must go on. So, under the circumstances, what are the diplomats to do?

Characterizations are flamboyant and each role has very distinctive and highly emphasized shtick. The focal character is a buttoned-down, panic-attack ridden American diplomat who promotes American hegemony. His German counterpart, Renate, is lively and lascivious, and she is obsessed with the notion that the American, Fishbein, would have a circumcised penis. Catherine, the Brit, is cynical, sarchastic, and bossy, while Frenchman Pierre-Francois is dogged by a phobia of fresh produce and hates how his career has failed to progress.

The play has a number of humorous sequences, but certain devices are repeated much too often. Among those are that the U.S. attaché frequently shoots forth his right hand and blurts out “J. Lawrence Fishbein, United States Embassy”, alone and in public. When Fishbein is with the Ambassador, each time the President, the United States, fellow republic, or strategic partner are mentioned, they perform corresponding hand jives. But the device that most wears out its welcome is face slapping. Often, several characters are aligned on the stage, and each in turn slaps the next one. Three or four recurrences would be appropriate, but the slapping returns incessantly.

Dan Kurtz as Fishbein and Tavis Kammet as Pierre-Francois do what is asked of them in a commendable manner, but there is great repetition in the actions of both that makes each less interesting in the end. Renate’s Jewish penis obsession has a different twist each time it comes up, and Courtney Merrell acts with great verve and humor. Karen Offereins is always a desirable stage presence, and she handles the more grounded and less frenetic Catherine in exemplary style. Most actors play two roles in the play. In smaller parts, Margery Fairchild excels as the Texas-twanged embassy secretary with colorful metaphors for all occasions, and Ryan Hayes is fine as the dogmatic, autocratic ambassador.

“The Diplomats” is produced by Dark Porch Theatre and plays at Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco through May 28.


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