The Capitalist and the Communist

Rocky and Diegoends with that symbol of enlightened capitalism—Nelson A. Rockefeller—leading a Sunday school of small-fry capitalists in a rousing rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” The scene humorously underscores the central idea in this idea-driven play: businessmen—not artists, scientists or priests, and certainly not workers—are America's real religious leaders.

Written by the relatively obscure but prolific Roger Cornish, Rocky and Diegoconcerns two proud, flawed men locked in a struggle over art and commerce. It's 1933, and Nelson “Rocky” Rockefeller—the young, ambitious scion of that famous American clan—has yet to step on the political path that will take him within a heartbeat of the American presidency. He's 24 years old, an intelligent, sensitive patron of the arts and a progressive Republican (his family, he says, is “all for the Negro”). But he's also a Rockefeller, determined to help raise the shattered business and consumer confidence of Depression-era America by turning his father's enormous new Manhattan development—the Rockefeller Center—into a cathedral to capitalism.

So he has recruited the brilliant Mexican artist Diego Rivera to paint the mural that will grace the building's lobby. Rockefeller knows Rivera's reputation and talent will imbue his father's building with the pop-culture credibility needed for this icon to developing civilization. He does not consider the irony in his choice: Rivera is a card-carrying member of the Mexican Communist Party and fiercely devoted to three things—artistic freedom; the revolutionary cause; and big, big tits. Rockefeller can indulge in two of those passions, but the revolution thing doesn't quite fit, and that's what makes this play a play.

When Rivera paints a common worker at the center of his Rockefeller Center mural, both Rocky and Diego project onto the figure their chiaroscuro dreams. For Rivera, the worker is a not-so-subtle reminder that the wheel of industry is turned by the backbreaking toil of the common man and woman, workers yearning for radical liberation from a million little Rockefellers. For Rockefeller, the enlightened capitalist who dreams of “bringing Amos and Andy to Bogota,” that same worker is a symbol of all that is right with capitalism. The worker works to fulfill the businessman's dream of creating a world safe for democracy and industrial progress.

Rocky and Diego might just go on in this way—each interpreting the same set of facts in antipodal ways—but for the arrival of sassy reporter May Bliss (a piss-and-vinegar Sarah Petty, who does everything she can with a weakly written character) and Communist Party official Joel Rack (a suitably intense Jason McBeath). Bliss is on hand to get a big story; she finds it when Rivera, while seducing her, lets spill the revolutionary context of his mural. Bliss decodes the mural-in-progress for her readers, forcing Rockefeller to balance a defense of his aesthetic and political sensibilities. Something similar is running through Rivera's life. Comrade Rack finds Rivera's mural insufficiently revolutionary, alerts the party, and commences the artist's excommunication. When Rivera finds out he has been booted by the Mexican party, he's forced to choose between his artistic and political beliefs; for the first time, it seems, they may not mix.

Playwright Cornish sensitively portrays his main characters as earnest men devoted to their causes. Director Donn Finn does a stellar job of getting that across while managing to lighten the play's heavy-duty politics. The presence of the hyperemotional Frida Kahlo Rivera, a cartoonish-but-believable Annie DiMartino, supplies a lot of the comic relief.

But the performances of Logan Sledge as Rockefeller and Brian Rickel as Rivera make this production. Sledge starts off teetering between frat boy and Ivy League alum, someone not cut out for a life of sharp-elbowed business deals and political intrigue. But Sledge ultimately reveals his character's naked love of power—without ever branding Rockefeller as evil or even mean-spirited.

Rickel's Rivera is similarly effective. From his slumping posture to his character's palpable pride, Rickel crawls into Rivera's skin, transforming him into a believable and sympathetic creation.

Rocky and Diegois not a picture-perfect play. The second act's intensity flags in favor of plot sequencing. The tying up of loose ends—including the increasingly annoying Bliss subplot and the unnecessary introduction of Rockefeller's mother into the mix—is like the prayer before a meal at a homeless shelter. But the play still works on the most important level: it feels bigger than what's happening onstage. We may be watching a fictionalized account of a real incident that happened 70 years ago, but the issues—selling out, individual vs. social responsibility, whether art means anything in a world dominated by commerce—resonate today.

Rocky and Diego at Cal State Fullerton's Recital Hall, Cal State Fullerton, Nutwood Ave. N State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 278-3371. Thurs.-Fri., May 23-24, 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 N 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 N 6:30 p.m. $7-$9.

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