Face-to-face smear tactics – Chicago Reader

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Politics has always been a “smelly kitchen”, to use an expression of Jean Anouilh. Antigone. But in 1933, two new cooks entered this kitchen. And the recipes they came up with continue to foul the air of the US election.

Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker (a widow and married man who eventually married) formed Campaigns, Inc. that year and quickly focused on the singular goal of preventing the Democratic candidate for governor of California , writer Upton Sinclair, to take office in Sacramento. At first glance, that would seem pointless: California was a ruby-red state where no Democrats held statewide office, and nearly every member of the state legislature was also a GOP. But Sinclair, an avowed socialist and former two-time election loser who decided for pragmatic reasons to run as a Dem (sound familiar?) won more votes in the primary than any candidate – red or blue – in the history of the state. It was almost as if he was conjuring into reality the vision he set forth in his 1933 essay “I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty,” written as his opening salvo . With the growth of pro-Sinclair EPIC (End Poverty in California) organizations across the state, as well as the new power wielded by the Dems under FDR in Washington, conservatives were nervous.

Campaigns, Inc.
Until 18/09: Wed-Thu 7.30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm and 8pm, Sun 2pm; Sun 8/21, 4pm only; TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington, 773-281-8463, ext. 6, timelinetheatre.com, $42-$57 ($25 for U.S. military personnel, veterans, first responders, spouses, and family; 35% off for students with valid ID)

But he who exalts himself by his words can be undone by his words. This is just one of the lessons contained in Will Allan’s historical comedy, Campaigns, Inc., now premiering with the Timeline Theater Company under the direction of Nick Bowling. Baxter and Whitaker, played by Tyler Meredith and Yuriy Sardarov, look a bit like what you’d imagine Mary Matalin and James Carville would be if the two were conservative, and they were played by Irene Dunne and Cary Grant.

But the terrible truth promoted by the two starving agents is actually the product of what Sinclair called “the lie factory.” Taking phrases out of context from Sinclair’s fiction (“The sanctity of marriage . . . I once had such a belief . . . I no longer have it” – from Sinclair’s 1911 novel The pilgrimage of love) and run them as advertisements in conservative outlets like the Los Angeles Times and the papers of William Randolph Hearst, both made the honest Sinclair look like a staunch defender of free love. They also used direct mail successes while creating the one-stop shop of political advice as a profession. Add to that America’s fear of the S-word in politics, and it’s no surprise that Sinclair lost to GOPer Frank Merriam.

The strength of Allan’s storyline lies in its ability to move beyond the easy binaries of Sinclair as the politically innocent and Merriam and the GOP as greedy monsters. Played by Anish Jethmalani, Sinclair is an obviously decent man, but more comfortable with writing than speaking in public (he apparently had a stutter, which echoes the attacks on slurred speech of our current POTUS) . And though he presents himself as a Dem, he is hesitant to endorse FDR’s New Deal, even as he seeks the man’s own endorsement, because, he says, “it’s not enough. Well”. This proves fatal in the end. Many candidates have found themselves hoisted on the firecrackers of their own purity and failure to understand the need for compromise and coalitions to get where they are going.

By contrast, Terry Hamilton’s Merriam is a red-faced braggart straight out of a Preston Sturges comedy. He wants power for himself and isn’t particular about how to get it. However, even if it is Meredith’s Baxter who comes up with the most effective attacks on Sinclair (especially once the studios, fearing that writers will syndicate, cooperate with libelous news), Merriam fears his victory will be considered like straddling a woman’s skirts. He demands that Baxter make peace with Whitaker after the two argue over the latter’s family friendship with Sinclair. (Whitaker, stuck in what he claims is a loveless marriage, is clearly smitten with Baxter, like Grant’s Walter Burns trying to win back Hildy Johnson from Rosalind Russell in His daughter Friday.) Meredith’s almost palpable rage at having her talent and vision ignored by responsible men sets the stage for the paradox of GOP women succeeding in a man’s world while pushing back against traditional gender roles. (Hello, Phyllis Schlafly!)

Meanwhile, Sinclair tries to enlist the help of both Roosevelts (David Parkes as FDR and Jacqueline Grandt as Eleanor, more popular than her husband and therefore a thorn in her side). He also tries to get his old friend Charlie Chaplin (Dave Honigman) out publicly. But Chaplin – who is trying to convince Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford (Parkes and Grandt again) to support his latest attempt at a walkie-talkie, Modern timesand also finds Sinclair’s socialism at odds with his own even more left-leaning political positions—reluctant at first.

So there are a lot of narrative balls in the air in Campaigns, Inc., sometimes at the expense of character development. But as a comedic guide to how propaganda works and how even the best candidate on paper can be torn down in three dimensions, it’s a peach. Allan has a keen ear for ironic aphorisms: “These are not lies. These are different versions of the truth,” being a pungent example. (He also has fun adding steak references as a nod to Sinclair’s most famous book, The junglelocated in the stockyards of Chicago.)

Bowling, always a fan of mid-century pieces, brings the same sensibility and energy to a piece that obviously pays homage to films of the era. The set is tight, with poignant and gritty moments provided by Grandt as the pro-Sinclair waitress. Black and white projections by Anthony Churchill and flexible decor by Sydney Lynne bring flash, verve and a visual reminder of how quickly the tides can change in politics.

In the end, it’s an open question as to how good a rigid idealistic governor Sinclair would have been. But what is absolutely beyond doubt is that Whitaker and Baxter set the bar low for the dirty political tricks that have plagued us ever since. Campaigns, Inc. is a comedy, but given recent historical events, we know that tragic outcomes await behind the scenes.

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