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Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008

Idealism Versus Pragmatism

Theater Review

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   "Politics makes strange bedfellows," says a reporter-turned-political-adviser in State of the Union, a play about the 1948 presidential election that opened The Rep's new season last weekend. Timing is everything, of course, and this production remains highly relevant in 2008.

  With the presidential election looming, this Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse strikes some familiar chords. Fifty-three years after the script was written, we can still relate to similar ideas and challenges within today's political system. As directed by Michael Halberstam, State of the Union deftly balances Lindsay-Crouse's witty humor and clever wordplay with sharp points about politics-in and out of the bedroom.

  Idealism battles pragmatism in State of the Union. And like any election, the question is who-or rather, what-will win? When aviation magnate and idealistic candidate Grant Matthews (Lee Ernst) explains how he wants to bring out the best in people, his headstrong wife, Mary (Laura Gordon), responds, "And still be in politics?"

  Political backroom dealer James Conover (James Pickering) gets more than he bargains for when Matthews starts to believe that he actually can make a difference, such as healing the rift between business and labor unions. To succeed, the candidate must make more and more concessions to special interests for this vote and that vote. Is it worth it?

  In some of her best acting to date, Gordon fully transforms Mary Matthews from estranged housewife to political player and decision maker. Pickering is believable as the Washington insider Conover, as is Ernst as the nave capitalist Matthews.

  The playwrights make their own views known as well, culminating in a hilarious dinner-party scene. It's the women who really run the show, and Rose Pickering does a very funny turn as an increasingly drunk wife of a judge who keeps her increasingly frustrated husband (Peter Silbert) behind the bar rather than out front, schmoozing the politicians.

  Like the political system itself, State of the Union reminds us that the more things change, the more they remain the same. But the fun is in watching it all unfold, and seeing who really wins in the end.

   Runs through Oct. 12 at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater.