'The Manchurian Candidate' Is a House of Cards

Last week, in an interview posted on the terrifically lefty political website Truthdig.com, Noam Chomsky, everybody’s favorite terrifically lefty intellectual, warned of a possible extremist right-wing takeover of the American government. Likening the current American political climate to that of Weimar Germany shortly before the Nazis began their reign of terror, the 81-year-old Chomsky declared, “The mood of the country is frightening. The level of anger, frustration and hatred of institutions is not organized in a constructive way. It is going off in self-destructive fantasies.”

Funny, but that’s kind of what Richard Condon wrote in his 1957 political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, which John Frankenheimer turned into a classic example of the cinematic genre in 1962. Though a page-turning thriller about espionage and psychological warfare set in the wake of the Korean War and the Red Scare led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, the book and the film were also agile satires akin to Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 classic, It Can’t Happen Here.

The object of the satire was political extremism: The same right-wing forces in The Manchurian Candidate who warn of America’s decline from a systemic infiltration of Communists in the highest reaches of the American government are actually in league with the Soviet and Chinese Communists they purportedly want to save America from. Their plan is to use Communist brainwashing techniques to stage a domestic coup, and then turn their resources on fighting their real foes.

The combination of paranoia, conspiracy and dark comedy resulted in a great novel and original film—and introduced the term “Manchurian Candidate” into popular culture, meaning a brainwashed sleeper agent programmed to carry out an assassination. Though updating the story to the 21st century and introducing Islamophobia into the plot didn’t work as well in a 2004 remake, its study of extremism in the name of liberty run amok certainly felt compelling in the post-9/11 world. The current fractured American political system and hatemongering from all quarters makes it feel relevant in 2010.

So why shouldn’t Brian Newell adapt the story for the stage at the Maverick Theater? After all, Newell’s company has carved a unique niche in Southern California by adapting films for the stage and adopting cinematic techniques into traditional theatrical storytelling.

Unfortunately, the alchemy in this Candidate’s case doesn’t work. And it boils down to one simple irrefutable maxim: film is a director’s medium; stage is an actor’s medium. For proof of that, check out this production.

Newell uses plenty of cinematic touches to tell this complicated story, from original film footage of political conventions and chase scenes up hotel stairwells to a rotating platform that allows sets to change quickly. Such devices help to convey the scope of the story, as well as help to tell a tale that takes place over several years and on two continents.

Yet you can’t help but think the reliance on the cinematic has gotten in the way of the acting. There are 16 actors, and with only a couple of notable exceptions, no one creates much of a character. The actors seem lifeless and wooden, or they bluster about in hopes of somehow conveying emotion.

Only the painfully underutilized Nick McGee, who surfaces in two minor roles, and Veda Franklin, who plays the Machiavellian Mrs. Iselin, seem truly comfortable in their characters’ skins. Most of the supporting characters are just that, but Sergeant Raymond Shaw (William Marty), the unlucky American chosen for programming, and Major Bennett Marco (John Brennan), his ally and pursuer, are pivotal. Unfortunately, neither actor does much with his character. Yes, both have been played and used as puppets, but rather than somehow suggesting the inner struggle and turmoil of people whose perceptions of reality are suspect at best, they seem awkwardly disengaged.

There is a general tendency among most of the cast to play their characters very broadly, from Robert Craig’s drunken ass of a senator, John Iselin, to Percival Arcibal’s Dr. Yen Lo, the mastermind behind the brainwashing experiment. Going big might elicit some chuckles from time to time, but it drains the play of its most critical element: suspense. These characters don’t seem dangerous, so the play doesn’t feel dangerous.

The end result is a play that renders the story itself inconsequential, making it very difficult to take seriously. And for a story with such serious—if darkly ironic—overtones, that’s disappointing.

The Manchurian Candidate at the Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-7070; www.mavericktheater.com. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 5 & 8 p.m. Through June 5. $10-$20.


This review appeared in print as “House of Cards: Maverick Theater’s film-to-stage conversion of The Manchurian Candidate isn’t playing with a full deck.”

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