The Long Beach Playhouse is billing The Night of January 16tha "comedy thriller" and a "courtroom drama with a twist." But it's really a portrait of its author as a young woman. Ayn Rand, a kind of female Nietzsche, wrote the play in 1933, long before she'd become famous for her creation of Objectivist philosophy and for her elucidation of that philosophy in such novels (and then movies based on the novels) as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. But The Night of January 16th asks the same question she raised in her later works: What is my responsibility to myself and to others?
As in her novels, Rand's Objectivist message is delivered through one character—the noble achiever at odds with society, government and religion, quagmires of inefficiency, social controls, and misplaced responsibility for others.
This message gets its hearing in the trial of Karen Andre, a secretary accused of killing her wealthy boss—and Randian hero—Bjorn Faulkner. After Faulkner's death, investigators discover that his empire is a financial house of cards, one so huge that its collapse could take down the global economy.
You may be thinking of George W. Bush's friends at Enron or Ronald Reagan's in the savings-and-loan industry. And as you watch the play, you may also be thinking that the case against Andre is open and shut—the evidence, witnesses, apparent motive and admissions so overwhelming that there can't be much suspense here. But to Rand's credit, there is. She so cleverly plays with facts and logic that her accusers—those good folk who revile her boss—are revealed as frauds. The seemingly incontrovertible is suddenly easily controverted. And somewhere Johnnie Cochran is smiling.
Andre's jury consists of 12 audience members picked before each show. I won't tell you how they decided the matter of People vs. Andre, but I can tell you they ought to have issued a separate finding: the play is guilty of many misdemeanor acts of mayhem. Director Michael Ross has wisely emphasized the comedic overtones provided by Rand's odd, exaggerated caricatures. Balancing the trial's tension with the comedy gives his actors a lot of rope, and several hang themselves. Muffed lines, missed cues and a pictureless set short-circuit the play's energy and derail the psychological drama. Comic relief is fine, but denying motions before they're made, misnaming the victim and bad vocal delivery elicited laughs of derision. The evening of this Night of January 16th felt a few rehearsals short of what might ultimately prove a fine production.
The Night of January 16th at The Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 494-1014. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Feb. 9. $15.