I just can't stop thinking about Iraq. I keep putting myself in the place of some middle-aged guy from Baghdad. I imagine a stranger who looks a lot like President Bush storming into my house one day and saying, "Okay there, Towely, I'm going to overthrow Saddam Hussein for you, but I'm going to have to kill your wife and cut off one of your kid's arms and seize your national assets and give your antiquities to looters, and you still may end up with a bloody civil war on your hands. But combat is so much sweeter when everyone involved is free!"
I try to snap out of my war-induced depression because I've got a play to review at Germantown Community Theatre -- a minor mid-20th-century political satire called The Girls in 509 -- and it's just not fair to anybody involved if I'm in a deep funk before I even hit the lobby.
As it turns out, this wasn't an imperfect prelude for the show. GCT's current offering is a sly, biting critique of Memphis' famously affluent suburb: an isolationist bubble where it really is all about the money.
At any other place, in virtually any other time, I might ask, Why? The Girls in 509 only has enough plot for one act, but it's stretched by some old burlesque routines. The play's final assumption -- that political parties are all the same -- is only superficially true. But in Germantown, Tennessee, on the eve of a hotly contested presidential election, it feels so very right. It's a cutie portrait of a spoiled aristocracy who take taxation as a personal affront but pay their dues to the country club as a matter of obligation. The Girls in 509 is sweet, quaint, a bit amateurish around the edges, and a host of other faint-praise adjectives. Oddly enough, that's what makes it so especially potent.
Meet the Vanderwycks: Aunt Hettie (Martha Graber), the diehard Republican matriarch , and Mimsy (Julie L. Reinbold), her accomplished niece. After GOP disgrace Herbert Hoover lost his bid for reelection, these fabulously wealthy ladies locked themselves in a two-room apartment to wait out the certain apocalypse of a Democratic administration. Using the name Smith, they live for 20 years without ever learning that the Depression is over or that the Republicans -- led by Eisenhower -- are back in favor. The eccentric recluses would have remained hidden from the world if they weren't in danger of being forcibly evicted from their modest, self-imposed prison.
Sadly, many of the show's best lines fall flat. When the head of the Republican Party (Jim Spratley) takes credit for ending the Depression, there should be a huge laugh. But no. The crowd needs a good double entendre to get their chuckle on. Satire is clearly alive and well but living on a tiny island where people still read.
"Have the Republicans reduced the number of federal employees?" the elder Vanderwyck asks the top conservative, who proudly admits that they have actually enlarged government, creating more jobs for Republicans. Funny how 50 years after this gag was written, some people still think a vote for the GOP is a vote for smaller government. It's a classic. It's a keeper.
The representative of the Democratic Party (also played by Jim Spratley, get it?) fares no better when submitted to the brutal questionings of a woman who thinks the servant class is paid way too well. The lawyers of the world and a "biased" media (guilty as charged) end up taking the play's toughest lickings. Is any of this material -- created as America was shifting to Camelot -- starting to sound eerily familiar?
The Vanderwycks have constructed an artificial refuge where they are free to ignore the world. They've given up on a media whose socialist ventures into the lives of migrant workers and windy essays on inequality among the races might even be considered indelicate. They are an elite tax-hating suburb of two.
To ward off the Wingnuts, I'm not saying that Germantown, where Bush/Cheney signs abound, is evil. But it's as out of touch as the Vanderwycks. When your country rains down 50 9/11-sized tragedies on a civilian population in the name of freedom, maybe there's more to think about than your checkbook. When your president can't stick to one solid reason why American troops are dying, maybe it's time for the wealthy to rethink their vote. That's all I'm saying.
And that, I think, is the subtle suggestion of GCT's terribly tasteful and shockingly current revival. Kudos to a cast of character actors worthy of a Preston Sturges film and more kudos to director Joanne Malin for dusting off a forgotten gem and giving it new life. •
Through October 24th