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Depending on your tolerance for artful bullshit, the smooth-talking protagonist of Stephen Belber’s McReele could register as either an insufferable self-promoter or some kind of a political genius. He’s both, of course, and the trick in parsing Belber’s wildly uneven satire is knowing that Darius McReele never seems more authentic than when he’s letting it rip. This former Delaware death row inmate turned senatorial candidate is a deliberately ambiguous creation—equal parts seducer and con artist. If Belber’s play admirably refuses to resolve the many contradictions of McReele’s public persona, it fails at the larger task of investing his ambiguity with any meaning beyond a coy inscrutability.
With its predictable stabs at politics and the media, McReele offers its audience what can best be described as McCynicism. Acquitted of first-degree murder, McReele (Anthony Mackie) discovers that he’s become an Internet celebrity thanks to his widely read prison blog. Local Democrats latch on to McReele as their next big thing (he’s black, intelligent, and sexy) and they enlist Rick (Michael O’Keefe), the journalist who helped exonerate him, to launch the man as their unlikely choice for the U.S. Senate. Adding manure to the political fire is a Connie Chung-like TV personality (Jodi Long) who uses the controversial candidate as ratings fodder. (“He’s uniquely marketable in a bullshit market,” she hisses.) On the air, McReele stridently voices support for racial profiling and the death penalty while calling for the end of affirmative action. McReele is doubtlessly intended to be less human than a free-floating fount of political provocation, though he’s ultimately even less than that—a bundle of stock contrarianisms that Mackie plays with a disappointing absence of bile.
As in Belber’s much praised Tape, in which three characters argue over an alleged rape that one of them thinks he committed, McReele plunges into the subjective haze surrounding an offstage act of violence: Did McReele commit the murder for which he is technically innocent? First among the skeptics is his long-suffering girlfriend Opal (the excellent Portia), who greets her beau’s every come-on with a withering, don’t-fuck-with-me glare. Opal is the closest the play has to a voice of honesty (her BS detector is set on permanently high alert), but even her motivations prove to be morally suspect. In the end, it’s difficult to determine which of Belber’s conceits is more condescendingly simplistic—his insistence that we’re all venal, self-serving, two-faced assholes, or that his characters express horrified disbelief when one of them is outed as such. It’s strange that a satire so insistent on wearing its disillusionment on its sleeve should harbor such a gushy (and false) naïveté. Itself something of an extended bullshit session, McReele lacks the conviction of its own misanthropy.