Humorist Douglas McGrath opened his solo show, Political Animal, Monday, Oct. 7, at Off-Broadway's McGinn/Cazale Theatre on West 76th Street.
McGrath plays presidential candidate Alister Farrell, who would give his right arm to be elected -- if he hadn't already given it to get the nomination. He's "a charming opportunist whose own mother wouldn't vote for him." Peter Askin directs the satirical comedy.
"It's exhausting but so much fun!" Douglas McGrath said in a phone interview. "People need to laugh about politics, and it was cathartic for me, too. Back when I was writing for 'Saturday Night Live' I had to follow the news very closely to write jokes for Weekend Update."
McGrath did make the distinction between Political Animal and politically oriented stand-up comedy. "It's a solo show, but unlike Jackie Mason telling jokes about the candidates, it's a play. At one point I play four characters in a debate, and Peter Askin has me change one prop or costume -- glasses, a flag button, a scarf -- with each character change. It's loads of fun."
"Alister Farrell," McGrath said, "looks back on his life as he waits to see if he'll be elected president. He's a crummy, low, immoral person, but how did he get to that point?" Responding to the fact that the play's mixed critical response was mostly negative when concerning the story's serious exploration of Farrell's character. "Obviously, I disagree," McGrath said. "We didn't want the story to be pure comedy. He's a loathsome character, but we need to know how he came to that position. Even the vile Jesse Helms came from somewhere. And it's funny, critics felt one way, but the people who come to see the show, THAT'S the part they respond to the most."
Asked whether the show will extend past its Nov. 17 closing, McGrath cheerily responded, "Oh no, I'm exhausted. Besides, I owe Miramax two films. After "Emma" they were very nice about letting me do the play. `All right,' they told me, `but be quick about it.'"
Clive Barnes' New York Post review (10/9) of Political Animal was lukewarm at best: "...far from the dullest political debate I've heard in recent days," Barnes opined, "but this is not enough to make completely satisfying theatre. At one level, [McGrath] is presenting a mercilessly extended "Saturday Night Live" skit on slithery politicos and their self-serving ways... And at another, much more ambitious level, McGrath is offering a close-to-serious study of a man psychologically crippled in childhood by an absence of paternal approval and attention."
Barnes finishes his review with, "Like so many political tirades -- this one is a victim to the expectations it aroused and sometimes nurtures. McGrath could have done much more by aiming at much less."
Jonathan Mandell was no kinder in Newsday (Oct. 9), complaining that Animals "sinks from McGrath's decision to overload his many clever lines with pat and sappy scenes. The candidate, as it turns out, is a pathetic creature with deep emotional problems whose political ambition is simply his effort to get his parents' love and be popular.
McGrath began as a writer for NBC-TV's "Saturday Night Live" and now serves as contributing editor for "The New Republic." A co-author of the Woody Allen film Bullets Over Broadway, McGrath was the adapter and director of the recent movie, Emma. Plays by McGrath include The Big Day and State Of The Nation.
Director Askin staged Beauty's Daughter and John Leguizamo's Spic-O-Rama and Mambo Mouth Off-Broadway.
Sets for Political Animal are by Robert Odorisio, lighting is by Phil Monat, and costumes are by Candice Donnelly. Dennis Diamond will provide video segments for the show.
For tickets and information on Political Animal, which runs through Nov. 17 (previews began Sept. 24), call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200. -- By David Lefkowitz