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Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013

The Truth Will Out

Next Act’s examination of a culture of dishonesty

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The generative question for Jason Wells’ Perfect Mendacity was whether individuals trained in Method Acting could beat a polygraph test. Method Acting allows practitioners to generate emotions on cue through conditioned mental imagery. Employing these techniques, subjects could manipulate how their responses to polygraph questions are interpreted.

From this fascinating question arise many, many more—all complex and all timely—ranging from the personal ethics and psychology of deception, to race relations, to the repercussions of whistle blowing on government secrets.

In Next Act’s production, Rick Rasmussen’s elegantly spare set captures the mood of this line of questioning. The interrogation chair is central throughout the action and polygonal screens receive fractal projections aptly suggesting the dissection of morality and relationships underway onstage.

Although the script endeavors to address more topics than it can fully explore within its time frame, the actors do a marvelous job of bringing a complex reality to the sweeping personal and political topics. The marriage of defense microbiologist (read chemical weapons developer) Walter Kreutzer and his Moroccan wife Samira is central to the drama. Next Act veteran Mark Ulrich and Milwaukee rising star Marti Gobel bring the couple to life, convincingly navigating a relationship in which love remains, even as the marriage crumbles because of incompatible ethics.

Of the many questions raised, two philosophical ideas come to the fore. The first is introduced by the man Walter hires to help him beat the polygraph after his company discovers his involvement in leaking a sensitive memo. Explaining Method Acting to Walter, the polygraph expert (played with comedic prowess by Lee Palmer) states, “It is your right to lie.” Is it? This is a central question for the play and for us all. Is deception ever right? Does it become right if our testimony is coerced and clearly damning to ourselves, our loved ones or our country?

Although the consultant makes the best case for the right to lie, the story arc more clearly suggests the axiom “the truth will out.” Walter’s longtime coworker Roger (played by director David Cecsarini) reveals himself to be the epitome of practiced deception, self-interest and bigotry, and yet even he is eventually caught by his own lies; like classic heroes and villains alike, his hubris betrays him. Samira chooses the truth because of moral compunction—hers being the purest and most solid we see. Walter is the most dynamic because his compunctions exist, but have been long suppressed. Like his tragic forbear, Hamlet, his dithering and clinging to the seeming safety of dishonesty lead only to demise.

Perfect Mendacity runs through Oct. 13 at Next Act Theatre. For tickets, call 414-278-0765 or visit nextact.org.