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Dorothy Chansky

. . . of the imagination / of credulity


Kristin Griffith and Evan Thompson in " Stretch". Photo by Jim Baldassare.

Review of "STRETCH (a fantasia)"
New Georges at the Living Theater
21 Clinton Street
New York, NY
May 2 – 26 2008; Wednesdays-Mondays at 8:00 p.m.
Tickets: $20; Pay what you wish on Mondays
Box office: (212)868-4444 or www.smarttix.com

Reviewed May 18, 2008

If you had told me a week ago that I'd be seeing real feminist hope in a play sympathetic to a snobby Republican secretary with a penchant for pearls, perms, and Richard Nixon, I would have said, "in your dreams." That would have been prior to experiencing "STRETCH (a fantasia)" with, among many other things, its notion of where dreams can take you.

"STRETCH" is playwright Susan Bernfield's imagining of the last weeks of the life of Rose Mary Woods, Richard Nixon's long time personal secretary. Languishing in an Ohio nursing home, the 87-year-old Woods of "STRETCH" drifts in and out of sleep as she remembers the glories and ignominy of being a Beltway insider during the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, the Watergate scandal, and beyond. The real Woods died just two days after George W. Bush's second inauguration, and Bernfield makes the most of the 2004 election to show how Republican cheerleaders are not all clones. The playwright's Woods thinks Dubya is a dud who craves approval and lacks the relentless hunger for power that is the hallmark of a great president. If you're not addicted to power, she tells the mostly stoned young orderly who pushes her wheelchair, why go to all the trouble of scratching your way to the White House?

The historic Woods's own role in Watergate gives the show its title. She testified in federal court that she failed to remove her foot from the pedal of a tape recorder as she stretched to reach and answer the telephone. That plus pushing the wrong button at the wrong time resulted in the erasure of 4 to 5 minutes of an 18-minute gap of tape when the question on everyone's mind was "what did Nixon know about the Watergate break-in?" Woods in essence tried to take the rap for a politician in whom she believed passionately. She performed her seated secretary arabesque for news photographers whose writers dubbed the maneuver the "Rose Mary Stretch."

Bernfield uses Woods to ask large questions about loyalty and legacies. The play takes place in three time frames. In one realm Woods shares recollections of the past, which mostly tell us about her career and the power she herself craved and earned. In another frame the old Woods scorns the people around her ("the nothings"), spars with the octogenarian lefty in the next wheelchair, and gets the orderly to read her the newspaper every day. (In one of the funnier recurring riffs, the wet-behind-the-ears kid reads the first line of an article and the crusty Woods snorts "skip." If you ever wondered what the aural equivalent of "delete" sounds like, this is it.) Kristin Griffith's Rose is an immediately endearing , properly dressed, well-spoken neatnik with the wiliness of a fox and nerves of steel. Griffiths's first collapse into the wheelchair and the present puts forty-five years on the character with the ease of donning a feather boa. The drooping eyes, slack torso, and deepened voice materialize like black magic.

Finally, Rose dreams. And these are not the sorts of nightmares you might expect from someone who knows first hand about conspiracy theory. The dream sequences are numbered and introduced with intentionally tacky placards. They feature the young(er) Woods in a follow spot. In one sequence she dreams she's a Democrat screaming for impeachment and feeling for the downtrodden. Savoring the sweet sound of "peach" in the middle of impeachment, she invites us to think about our fears of (and longing for) identifying with the other side, whatever it is. Later she dreams she herself is Deep Throat, realizing that if she can give voice to this possibility, she could imagine being anyone. Which is, of course, why the dream is both liberating and something to be quashed.

The follow spot is only one of the highly theatrical, non-realist elements in STRETCH. A small orchestra sits on the small proscenium stage, while the main action occurs on an expanse of floor in front of it. When the red velvet stage curtains part, we are treated to quintet of bass, trumpet, two violins, and an IBM Selectric. (Note to young readers: You don't need to go to an antique store to see an electric typewriter. Staples sells them. They just don't sound like the ones from the 1970s. Note to orchestrators: this combination of instrumental voicings is surprisingly evocative and supple and it does very well at suggesting the jarring, irresistible world of the subconscious.) Composer/conducter Rachel Peters offers a running rhythmic commentary on Rose's rise and fall with her IBM keyboard, and noisy work is what makes Rose's heart sing. Shorthand self-portrait: "Behind every great man is a woman / with a typewriter strapped to her legs./ I can type through takeoff / I can type through landing. . . . Can't cook for hell, but, boy, do I do know my way around an ice cube."

Each of Rose's halves—the memoirist and the dreamer—has an interlocutor in the present. Bob, the retired high school teacher in the next wheelchair is the half who makes his appeal to the Rose who was part of history. (Actor Evan Thompson's powers of persuasion and capacity for self-revelation are compelling.) Bob wants Rose to talk to the other residents about her past and to get them involved in the present election. (She's having none of it.) Bob realizes he's failed to get through to his most recent generation of students, who are uninformed, uninvolved, uninterested, and unruffled. Where are the impassioned fighters of his son's generation (read anti-Vietnam baby boomers before they became the parents of today's citizen slackers)? How can he be such an utter failure as an educational influence?

The dreaming Rose is the one who fascinates the twenty-ish orderly who reads to her every day and spends every night smoking dope, eating chips, and watching TV with a drug-addict friend (a scarily shallow Eric Clem) whose television set is chained in place lest he succumb to the temptation to sell it for crystal meth money. The orderly (an adorable Brian Gerard Murray) watches lots of old people dream, but Rose dreams with a passion, and passion is what he doesn't have. He also has no idea of how to think about the future, and he realizes haltingly that old people have walked through terrain he can't even imagine. When Rose goes on a hunger strike, the orderly coaxes her to eat. When Rose throws her hands up at electoral politics, the orderly learns what it means to be in a swing state and have a vote that counts.

Set designer Jo Winiarski had plopped the young guys' finished basement into the center of the playing area, sunken (seemingly under its own mess) about three feet below the main floor. Director Emma Griffin keeps Rose and her story foremost in our minds, even though she is literally circling center and never occupying it. Neat trick. The boys may be in the middle of things, but they can't get out of their hole. Meanwhile, the old lady on the hunger strike (scaring the others but surviving on a stash of Girl Scout cookies as she makes a statement about menu preferences and coercive feeding practices) has what it takes to reach the disaffected kid, to get peas off the Wednesday menu, and to make us ask hard questions about history.

There is no missing tape of Rose Mary Woods's life. So we fill in the gaps ourselves, often with little basis other than media spin and flashy soundbites. A play's worth of thinking about women and power is Bernfield's testament to the variety of ways history gets erased (or is unwritten), even by liberals. When the sourpuss in the sensible shoes links the personal to the political with the hunger strike (no one who politely puts up with things gets anywhere) and gets the next generation involved (regardless of which side he chooses), we're on to something messier and more challenging than the "message" political plays are thought to be there to deliver. I like to think that Bernfield's Rose would support Hillary. Anyway, I'd love to know what she'd have to say.


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