Tails of Wasps
ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 292-7660, acttheatre.org. $15–$30. 8 p.m. Thurs.–Sun. plus Mon., April 21. Ends April 27.
We haven’t had a sex scandal in Seattle politics since God knows when. Partly for that reason, local playwright Stephanie Timm places her short new four-act in a very generic setting. Newly elected suburban congressman Frank Davis (Paul Morgan Stetler) isn’t a Democrat or Republican, and he doesn’t have any positions besides fighting the good fight. After the victory party, he’s returned to his hotel room—ringed by us 100 spectators in three banks of bleachers set close to the action—with his loyal campaign aide Rachel (Brenda Joyner) on what’s effectively her last night of employment. She throws herself at him, and the lights go out. (I’m compressing slightly.)
In the next three acts we meet three more women, each visiting the same hotel room with Frank, though not necessarily during the same night. (In fact, about five years pass.) Each vignette echoes the others, with repeated gestures, lines, and grapplings on the bed. There’s a hand job and a kick to the nuts. Booze is consumed, and confessions of alcoholism—among other admissions—are made. Fake names are used. The goddamn phone keeps ringing at inappropriate times, as if someone’s fucking with Frank’s head. Timm writes parallel structures for these episodes, but there’s also an overarching circularity to them. Frank never really leaves the hotel room; it’s a kind of purgatory for him, an arena for the eternal recurrence of his lust. His punishment isn’t just the shame but the irresistible repetition. (Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer are obvious inspirations here.)
And yet, Timm makes women—two of them paid—the enablers and even instigators in Tails of Wasps (the title’s a nod to A Winter’s Tale). Certainly Rachel is attempting to seduce; she’s no Lewinsky-style lackey. She has the intelligence and self-awareness (plus a fiance) to consider her actions, as Frank does not. And if the hookers are there for the money, they also get the better of Frank, who remains somewhat maddeningly opaque to us. He’s got no political views, no real qualities besides looking good in a suit and having a near-constant hard-on. He can’t be a tragic figure without greatness; nor can we even pity a shallow guy who’s lived his life by teleprompter. He says he’s a sex addict, but addiction is a poor substitute for character onstage.
Battling against this blank, Timm’s actresses fare better; yet their isolation—one per act, never meeting—dilutes the potential drama. (Darragh Kennan directs this very committed New Century Theatre Company production, with Betsy Schwartz, Sylvie Davidson, and Hannah Mootz rounding out the cast.) Each time the lights went down, cued by the phone or a knock on the door, I expected a mob of reporters to burst in. But no. We’re told of a press conference, of hasty speeches and damage control, yet Wasps excludes the outside world. Frank is trapped with himself; and worse, we’re trapped with him, too.