Why should an American audience of fairly sophisticated theatregoers (yes, we are) go to the Geffen Playhouse (10886 LeConte, Ave. Westwood (310) 208-5454) to see a play about a British prime minister? Well, I can think of at least three reasons. The first, that the play, Yes, Prime Minister, is quite funny. The second is that the actors are all first-rate wonderful. And the third is that the Geffen is a wonderful venue to see any show. Oh, another reason is that the situation in the play has uncanny parallels to today's situation in the world.
This is the U.S. premiere of this political satire, which was a huge success in its West End London run. We join Prime Minister Jim Hacker and his scheming cabinet secretary as they try to survive a chaotic weekend that teeters on the edge of catastrophe. With the nation on the brink of financial ruin, will the PM and his team of advisors resort to a mortally dubious deal with the foreign minister of the oil-rich central Asian state, Kumranistan, in order to avert potential calamity? (Of course they will.) Written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, creators of the1980s BBC sitcom upon which the play is based (said to be Mrs. Thatcher's favorite TV show), Yes, Prime Minster features a talented cast of of stage and screen stars, including Michael McKean (This is Spinal Tap), Tony Award winner Jefferson Mays (Broadway's The Best Man), Dakin Matthews and Brian George (Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory). Tara Summers is the sexy, stunning female lead. (I thought she stole the show from the men. Later, I learned that her godfather is Jack Nicholson, her mother the popular Nona Summers, and her father, London's Martin Summers, owns a famous wooden boat, Bluebird of Chelsea, which once belonged to Donald Campbell.)
Tara Summers is the only female in the cast... and is wonderful as the scheming assistant.
I confess that I have been a huge fan of Michael McKean since I first saw him as Lenny Kosnowski, the charming goofball on the sitcom Laverne & Shirley, many years ago. He then made an indelible impression as the heavy metal singer-guitarist in Rob Reiner's debut directing stint, This is Spinal Tap, one of the funniest films ever. I don't remember him in the 2003 Christopher Guest comedy The Mighty Wind, where he played a folk singer. The program notes remind me that he is also a skilled musician and songwriter who, along with actress wife Annette O'Toole (remember her, so beautiful) earned a best-song Oscar nomination for "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" from A Mighty Wind.
But the 65-year-old actor is wonderfully amusing in this Geffen production which was directed as well as co-written by the funny, brilliant Jonathan Lynn -- remember My Cousin Vinny, which he directed? Lynn told me afterwards that he and Michael had first worked together in the 1985 film comedy Clue. He's quoted in the L.A. Times as saying: "I watched him over the years and went to New York and saw him in Gore Vidal's The Best Man. He was awfully good in it, and it occurred to me that he might be a really good Jim Hacker. I expected him to bring a great deal to the role and that's what he's doing."
The paper recounts that it was just a year ago that McKean was hit by car that jumped the curb in New York. He broke his leg and had facial cuts, but recovered after several months of therapy.
In this political satire, we see Hacker returning to office as prime minister after several years away, and immediately enduring the worst day of his life. During the course of the play we see how he survives by playing the system to his advantage.
We see the scheming Cabinet Secretary (Matthews), the morally-confused Principal Private Secretary (Mays), and the beautiful, ruthless head of the PM's Policy Unit, the oh-so-talented and attractive Tara Summers. We see them lurch from crisis to crisis trying to survive a disastrous weekend that teeters on the edge of madness despite their best (and worst) intentions. Will they manage to save the Euro from collapsing, resolve the energy crisis, solve the debt crisis, hide an embarrassing illegal immigrant, control the media and avoid pubic humiliation? As director Lynn wrote: "Both British and American governments operate on the principle that if no one knows what you are doing, then no one knows what you are doing wrong."
As the silky-smooth, oily Sir Humphrey Appleby says of the British Civil Service, "Our success is founded upon being free from the taint of professionalism." I mentioned that this play reflects reality in so many ways and was thinking about the current News International scandal playing out in London.Randall Arney, the Artistic Director of the Geffen, summed it up aptly when he said:
As I said at the start, the Geffen audience is rather sophisticated, and thus they will appreciate that these writers have given us a perfect picture of the lines which are crossed for the sake of 'the greater good' and, of course, reelection. This play should do incredibly well in Washington.
As far back as Shakespeare, the English have had an uncanny knack for dramatizing the foibles of their own political system. Creating a microcosm for the larger world of politics, sex, deceit (and everything else that makes a good play), the writers have used farce, comedy, tragedy -- all forms at their fingertips to tell stories that reach far beyond their shores into the macrocosm of world politics.
The other production credits are excellent: Set Design by Simon Higlett, Costume Design by Kate Bergh, Lighting Design by Daniel Ionazzi, and Sound by John Leonard and Andrea Cox. The running time is 140 minutes, with one intermission, and there are strobe effects. Tickets can be purchased by calling (310) 208-5454, at the box office, or on-line at www.geffenplayhouse.com.