Political power games, backroom deals, twisted data, manipulations of the press: When it’s all happening in Florida, how can the theater compete? Not to say that the time isn’t ripe for satire, when the fate of the free world comes down to a bunch of alte kockers in Florida who accidentally voted for an anti-Semite. But a play of political intrigue these days is likely to smack into a wall of what-else-is-new cynicism.
Jay Broad’s engaging Conflict of Interest (New Federal Theater) almost breaks through with the sheer force of its first-rate cast and its story’s high stakes. Set in the nation’s capital, and bouncing between a hotel room and the Oval Office (in needlessly cumbersome scene changes), the play traces the conflict between the good-old-boy president, William Maxwell (John Wilkerson), and a campaign rival he bought off with an appointment to the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Jacob Balding (Al Freeman Jr.). Enraged that Balding has not helped him turn the Court into an instrument of political pandering, Maxwell trumps up allegations that Balding has taken bribes. Coached by their respective handlers, spinners, and confidants, the two stalk, squabble, and spar, Maxwell sinking to ever lower blows, Balding inching toward, and finally ascending, the high road.
Much of this is familiar. The theme of populism versus nobility, the use of mudslinging as plot engine, a pivotal confrontation scene, and a surprise ending are all duplicates of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. The dialogue, alas, is not. But then who could match Vidal’s wit, eloquence, and bite? Broad lacks not only the art, but also the temperament for such mean analysis, for in the end he hangs on to faith that integrity will win out. Meanwhile, his exposition is often clumsy and the attempts at zingers about as rousing as a Gore stump speech.
Still, Conflict of Interest provides pleasure and provocation, most of all in its cast of characters. Broad draws full-bodied men in clear, economic strokes (the two women, though, are less textured), and the actors, under Broad’s direction, make them compelling far beyond their purpose in the machinations. Count Stovall, as Balding’s wheeling-and-dealing brother-in-law, and Harold Scott, as a spunky sold-out senator, strike an especially enjoyable comic irony, filling their roles expertly even as they point to the characters’ hollowness.