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Loose "Lips"

A flawed script raises questions and wastes talent.

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OK, so it's not exactly Allen Drury territory but there's abundant raw material for a political potboiler here.

Unfortunately, Constance Congdon's script is a mess. None of the characters' motivations stand up to scrutiny. Why would such a crafty politician seek out a stranger with a criminal record and an erratic temperament as a potential girlfriend? Within her own political circles, she wouldn't have any trouble finding an activist eager to play the role and sturdy enough to withstand the firestorm she hopes to provoke.

The play also ignores a fundamental rule of politics: Your opponents will fight you from the center in order to attract as much support as possible. They will hate the president for lesbianism, but they will instead seize on the adultery to destroy her. The script acknowledges this problem in a few places but does nothing to resolve it.

And then there's the flaw that undermines the play's deepest messages. The president's political machinations are essentially dishonest. Sure, it's often charming when a leader (particularly a fictional leader) roguishly bends the rules to achieve a worthy goal. But her actions move from tactics into a form of fraudulence that would appear uncorrected in the history books.

All of these problems would be forgivable had the script dived headfirst into a zany alternate universe. But Congdon, more or less, plays the story straight-up. You can sense the set designer, John Knapp, is trying to shock the play out of its naturalistic tendencies with a bichromatic red-and-blue set, but it just doesn't scan. We're caught in a middle ground that suspends all of the known rules of politics without any of the benefits of a screwball comedy.

Not only that, the script feels like a first draft. The director, T. Ross Aitkin, does what he can, but the show nonetheless plods from scene to scene without any discernable movement toward a climax. And the dialogue has a ping-pong rhythm that tries to pass itself off as wit.

Sadly, the script wastes some nifty characters that could have admirably appeared in another story altogether.

Kim Neblett gets the character of the president just right. The president is weary of power but comfortable using it. Her best moments actually occur in telephone conversations with her husband (who never appears onstage). She believably shifts into another voice, revealing some of the conflicts and compromises in her emotional life.

As Rachel, Jennifer Frank is a chain-smoking, high-strung train wreck. Despite the ridiculous nature of the script, she manages to create considerable empathy as she finds her bearings in the middle of a political whirlwind.

It's a shame these characters (and performers) couldn't have appeared in a show that delivers the same political messages but with a higher degree of craftsmanship. S



"Lips" continues through Oct. 15 at Fielden's Cabaret Theatre, 2033 W. Broad St. Tickets cost $14-$16. Call 346-8113.

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