64. I FORGIVE YOU, RONALD REAGAN
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan, faced with a nationwide strike by 13,000 federally employed air traffic controllers, warned that if they did not go back to work, every single one would be fired. Led by their determined union, the controllers resisted, convinced there was no way that the president would follow through on his threat. But he did, sending all those highly skilled, well-paid workers, many of them veterans of Viet Nam, onto the unemployment lines. A small number, however, both for personal reasons and because they accepted the argument that it was illegal for federal employees to strike, stayed on the job. This historical choice is the basis for John S. Anastasi’s sometimes gripping, but too often clumsy, drama, I FORGIVE YOU, RONALD REAGAN, at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row.
The action is set in the Riverhead, Long Island, home of Ray (PJ Benjamin) and Jane DeLuso (Patricia Richardson). Craig Napoliello’s rather substantial set depicts their living room and, a step up at stage left, kitchen. The shingled roof overhead is seen on a scrim bordering the top of the set; when required, the scrim becomes a projection screen for flashback video clips of Reagan and the strikers, for notices of the current date, and for animated green air traffic control signals; it also becomes transparent when we see Ray up there in his attic hideaway.
The opening scene is set in August 1981 when Ray and his best friend and next-door neighbor, Buzz Adams (Robert Emmet Lunney), a fellow controller whose life Ray saved in Viet Nam, are awaiting news about the strike. They wear wigs and makeup (both too obvious) to suggest them as men in their late thirties. The remainder of the play takes place in 2004, when Ray, now silver-haired, and Buzz, practically bald, are no longer friends because Buzz crossed the picket lines, causing Ray, who lost his job and career, to thoroughly despise him. Ray ekes out a living as a general contractor, and Jane, who hoped to retire from teaching if the strike were successful, is the chief breadwinner, further curdling Ray’s hatred of Reagan and Buzz. Ray has done well for himself, but his wife died ten years ago, and he still grieves for her. The still attractive Jane, who loves her husband but is increasingly fed up with his angry outbursts and simmering vitriol, finds comfort (but not sex) in Buzz’s friendship, which only sends the jealous Ray into further paroxysms of rage. Jane and Ray’s 26-year-old daughter, Tess (Danielle Faitelson), is a feckless would- be actress, coddled by Ray, who (regardless of Jane’s more realistic attitude) blindly believes she will one day be a star. But, in the play’s schematically contrived structure, she falls in love with Buzz’s “Mr. Perfect” son, David, a successful young union attorney, setting up a situation for emotional fireworks when Ray discovers the relationship and blaringly insists that Tess break off her engagement. (ROMEO AND JULIET is invoked in an attempt at comic relief.) Meanwhile, Ray, more aggressively obstinate and obnoxious than Archie Bunker (Mr. Benjamin is a dead ringer for Carroll O’Connor), but without his humor, shows signs of dementia, and is obsessed with sneaking off to his attic where, with a poster of Reagan on the wall through which an X has been drawn, he uses a Nintendo set to recreate his long-gone air traffic experiences. The play moves into some bizarre psychological territory here, especially when Buzz enters the attic while Ray is in the process of guiding an airliner through a dangerous landing, and is unable to snap out of his fantasy world.
The play makes an earnest attempt to confront issues of guilt, parental responsibility, marital friction, delusion, and friendship as each of the four characters struggles to work out his or her interpersonal relationships and as Ray and Buzz face off against one another (verbally and physically) over that crucial moment when each made a different, life-defining choice. I FORGIVE YOU, RONALD REAGAN’S title is something of a spoiler, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the conclusion is benign, but the journey to that point is filled with emotional shrapnel that the characters must keep dodging to survive.
The audience also must dodge the play’s melodramatic excesses, its too-obvious expository passages, a final resolution that lacks credibility, and a leading character in Ray whose unpleasantness becomes trying. The direction by Charles Abbott has not been able to overcome these deficiencies. Mr. Benjamin’s performance as Ray is uneven; he has some very strong scenes, and is particularly excellent when doing his air controller scenes, but he often overacts, tipping the character into stereotype. Ms. Faitelson is believable as the spoiled daughter, especially when she stands up to her father’s demands, and Mr. Lunney is also good, although Buzz’s attempts at decency toward someone who so reviles him strain credulity. Best of the bunch is Ms. Richardson’s long-suffering Jane; for all the pressures her character must bear, she remains grounded and real, keeping her seething feelings under wrap but nevertheless apparent.
I FORGIVE YOU, RONALD REAGAN reminds us of a moment in recent American history that many of us have nearly forgotten, but that still rankles in the minds and hearts of those who were most affected. One of the most disturbing images flashed on the screen is a clip of New Jersey governor Chris Christie praising Reagan’s decision to follow through on his warning. Hearing Gov. Christie’s words, delivered with a smiling smarminess, make it hard to accept the words in this play’s title. I wonder how anyone negatively affected by that strike of over 30 years ago would feel on hearing Christie's comments. Forgiving? I think not.