It is no shocking revelation that American politics has degenerated into incivility. Gone are the days when House Speaker Tip O'Neill and President Ronald Reagan could feud during the day, but call each other "friends after 6 PM." Nowadays, partisans on one side of the aisle mercilessly assail their opponents as nefarious ideologues bent on the destruction of the nation, while claiming the sacred mantle of the Founding Fathers as exclusively their own. As to which side is which, well, that depends on whether you're a Republican or a Democrat.
But how can our country heal this great rift and restore respectful discourse to our country? In their new play, The Body Politic, which opens tomorrow (February 18th) at the 59E59 Theater in Manhattan, Richard Abrons and Margarett Perry propose an inventive solution: "political strip." The game, a heady version of strip poker, is played in Abrons and Perry's play by their dueling political consultant protagonists, Spencer Davis and Trish Rubenstein (portrayed by Matthew Boston and Eve Danzeisen).
The rules of political strip are simple. For each liberal or conservative the sexy adversaries can get their opponent to admit is "distinguished," the other party must remove a piece of clothing. Spence, a brash Republican WASP, gets Trish to concede Dwight Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater, Abraham Lincoln, William F. Buckley, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan (begrudgingly, acknowledging the fall of the Berlin Wall). Trish, a prototypical left-wing Democrat, scores with FDR, JFK, Harry Truman, Clarence Darrow, Martin Luther King, and Andrew Jackson (about Jackson, explains Spence, "I'd like to argue but I want to keep taking off my clothes"). Inevitably, the game ends in both parties quite willingly reaching across the aisle.
What better way to get partisans on both sides of the political chasm, in Barry Goldwater's words, to "disagree without being so disagreeable"?
Of course, the parallels to Mary Matalin and James Carville's famous strange bedfellows marriage are not lost on the playwrights, nor on their protagonists. "I used to wonder about [Carville and Matalin]. How could they get along, holding such opposite views?" ponders Spence, as he becomes increasingly flirtatious. He concludes: "It's actually a turn on."
Playfully pressing her suitor as to how willing he would be to compromise his principles to bed her, Trish prods, "What if I become a communist?"
Spence: "I'd join your cell. We'd make love in the Cuban mountains near the dying embers of our revolutionary campfire."
Trish: "What if I were a terrorist?"
Spence: "I would still want you but, if you blew yourself up, I would stop wanting you. Actually, I would want your parts."
Trish: "Why? Are you good at puzzles?"
Spence: "Depends. How am I doing?"
Despite the manifest virtues of this far more civil method of political engagement, Abrons and Perry anticipate a possible pitfall in pairing Mr. Right and Ms. Left--indeed, it is the source of dramatic tension in their astute and uproarious romantic comedy. Set against the backdrop of a heated presidential campaign, The Body Politic pits Governor Granville Parker (Brian Dykstra), a charming Bill Clinton-style Southern Democrat, against Governor Harley Grant (Daren Kelly), a confident Mitt Romney-type East Coast Republican. When Parker and Grant perceive their top aides' burgeoning affections for one another, rather than reacting with outrage, the governors see an opportunity to infiltrate the enemy camp--for the good of the county, naturally.
Thus, Trish and Spence are enlisted as Mata Hari and Nathan Hale to obtain their opponents' secrets by whatever means necessary. While seasoned theatergoers can perhaps anticipate how the ensuing hijinks unfold, the value of The Body Politic is greater than just its satisfying denouement.
In a recent lecture sponsored by the United Nations Staff Recreation Council Society for Enlightenment and Transformation, Professor Hugh O'Doherty of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government spoke about his experience in international conflict resolution. Raised in Northern Ireland, O'Doherty has literally spent his life entrenched in the most baffling and intractable political and ethnic battles around the world, and played a significant role in brokering peace in Bosnia and Croatia.
Asked how two parties who have hated each other for generations can even begin to resolve their differences, O'Doherty explained that the fundamental concession both sides had to make was to acknowledge that their enemies were human beings too.
Once both parties admit to a common humanity, they can eventually begin to realize that their enemies suffer, fear, pity, regret, hope, worry, wonder, and, yes, love, just like they do.
At the core of Abrons and Perry's play is this simple, yet sophisticated, understanding. At the end, Spencer Davis reflects upon the state of America today: "For our system to work, there has to be change. If one party can totally dominate, the system fails. I tried to argue that with Karl Rove. I told him that his efforts to create a permanent Republican majority were un-American."
Trish: "What did he say?"
Spence: "He laughed."
"The Body Politic" runs until March 6th at 59E59 Theaters at 59 East 59th Street in Manhattan.