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BWW Reviews: HEY, HEY, LBJ and BETHESDA Play the Capital Fringe

With Capital Fringe - a DC institution for several years now - you never know what you are going to get, which is exactly what a Fringe festival should be as a testing ground for new work. In some cases, an audience might be in for a production that's a diamond in the rough or sadly, an epic disaster. In some cases - perhaps comparatively fewer - you might unexpectedly happen onto one that features acting/script that's near ready for a run at a regional theatre or some other more established venue. While Bethesda and Hey, Hey LBJ - the first two Fringe offerings I saw - don't fall into the category of being ready for primetime, there are several good elements in both pieces from which to build.

Courtesy of Capital Fringe website (by Eric Gordon)

Bethesda, written by Jennie Berman Eng (Producer/Director), has been seen once already in the DC area. While I did not see the previous reading at last September's Page-to-Stage Festival at the Kennedy Center due to schedule conflicts, it was one of the offerings that piqued my interest. I was happy to see I had another chance to view it at this year's Fringe. One of Theater J's Locally Grown Playwrights for 2014, Eng has created a quintessential Washington, DC play that's likely to strike a chord with any of us who have traveled in government or even general Washington circles for any length of time.

When we first meet Joy (Adrienne Nelson) and Barry (James Whalen, seen regionally at Theater J and Everyman Theatre among others), they've just moved to Bethesda following a stint in Bolivia as part of the US Foreign Service. Barry's posting to La Paz has been cut short and now he's forced to work stateside in, of all things, State's Bureau of Verification, Compliance and Implementation (now known for the past few years as the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance). For those of you not in the know, think working with arms control treaties like the new START with Russia. It's not really sexy stuff. Joy is trying desperately to keep up appearances and in the good graces of Washington's elite, eager to help her husband make his next move because when he's on top, so is she as his social climbing spouse without any career of her own. However, the family is falling apart. Their teenagers Kevin (Noah Chiet) and Hildy (Georgia Mae Lively) aren't happy in their new surroundings and want to return to South America.

As the family begins to come to terms with and outwardly acknowledge what really happened in Bolivia and with their beautiful maid Maria Consuelo (Ariana Amaljan), using a mix of flashbacks (signaled with Megan Seibel's lighting design) and scenes in the present, the family must consider whether owning up to the truth is worse than going along with the fiction that's being presented. Keeping up appearances is hard stuff and eventually you'll reach a breaking point.

Eng manages to capture the pitfalls of working in the appearances-sensitive world of US diplomacy and the impacts of that world on family dynamics. Involving a uniformly strong cast - featuring some of the best acting you'll likely see in Fringe - there is an element of believability at play. While Whalen and Nelson portray each of their characters to a tee - he the once hotshot on the track to attaining a top level Embassy position, but now a somewhat disgraced mid-level employee, and she the neurotically controlling spouse concerned with what others think - it's the teenagers in the cast who make the biggest impression. Chiet - one of the strongest young actors in the region with credits at Signature, Olney, Ford's and Theater J - continues his trend of solid performances here. His performance is both natural and grounded, never falling into the trap of simply playing a caricature of a sullen teenager. The less-experienced but certain no-less-talented high school student Lively also brings her "A-Game" and likewise never succumbs to playing a caricature of what an annoyed teenage girl might look like. Every choice is thoroughly grounded in the text and what's happening onstage around her. In a smaller, but no less crucial role, Amaljan is appropriately mystifying as Maria Consuelo, never giving away a hand of what's really happening or has happened between her and the diplomat family.

Although Eng's script could use some dramaturgical assistance to streamline and focus the story a bit - the situations she presents can become a bit repetitive - she does have the makings of a solid play. Technical audio issues aside - a few missed calls of sound cues, some moments of the sound cues being too loud, and a few moments of listening to static in the speakers - it was one of the more polished productions I've seen at Fringe at least from a casting/playwriting standpoint. If I had one tiny criticism about the design elements I would say that although the guitar-driven music used during scene changes is appropriately Latin in flavor, a little variance would be nice. Also, one might consider ensuring they are timed to play the length of the scene change.

David Kleinberg (courtesy of Capital Fringe website)

If Bethesda is marked by a solid story and some solid acting, Hey, Hey, LBJ, has a little bit of the former, but not much of the other. Written and performed by David Kleinberg, our solo artist recalls his service as a young 20-something in Vietnam. Drafted to support the Army's 25th Infantry Division as an information specialist thanks to his journalism experience, his story is much like many of the others that have come out since that divisive war took place. What starts out as a young man set out - although not by choice - for a new adventure, ends with a slightly older man whose viewpoint about what was happening there undergoes a shift that's to be an enduring one. Marked by moments of disillusion and horror, loss of life, and camaraderie with others going through the same things, he recalls the low points of his service in the war and the aftermath. Revealing the challenges in executing his job to the satisfaction of his commanding officer and worse, being personally impacted by the senseless loss of life on both sides, he gives a bitter look at what it was like for him to serve as a reporter on the proceedings. While he met some wonderful friends during his one-year experience there, his feelings about the war are naturally very conflicted.

The strongest moments of the script come when he revisits the fateful morning when he was in Bangkok having a good time and his other reporter friends are injured/killed at the base in Cu Chi when their bunker - lacking a top - is the target of a rocket attack. In gripping detail, he describes the physical horror his friends endured, as well as the aftermath. Gino, a survivor, must recover emotionally and physically. A leader must identify the blown apart bodies in the morgue and help solve the puzzle as to which legs go with which head. However, it takes a long time to get to that vivid portrait, which is a shame because it's clearly one of the defining moments that impacted how he views the war. First, we must muddle through a far too long and repetitive discussion of the punishment he endures when he makes a reporting mistake (it won't be spoiled here, but it does have his moments of humor at the end). While necessary to include this discussion, it's placement in the script does not allow for the solid and logical building of the story.

Kleinberg isn't quite equipped to give voice to all of the players in his stories and at times it was clear he was struggling to remember the show at the performance I witnessed. While I give him credit for sharing his painful story with the world, he'd do well to bring on a strong director. Mark Kenward is credited, but the direction seems non-existent. A director - as well as a dramaturg - could help him excise superfluous parts of the script and ensure every moment is focused on addressing the singular thought that's the foundation of his script in a way that's logical and affecting. Improved execution and placement of the technical elements, likewise, would allow his video sequences featuring speeches from LBJ, his younger self, etc., to work better in supporting his message.

"Bethesda" and "Hey, Hey, LBJ" play at the Goethe Institut - 812 7 Street, NW in Washington, DC - as part of this year's Capital Fringe Festival, which runs through July 27, 2014. For specific dates and times, consult the Capital Fringe website. "Bethesda" runs about 90 minutes in length, while "Hey, Hey LBJ" runs about 75 minutes in length.

Fringe Graphic: Courtesy of Capital Fringe website.

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