Theater is a bit like cooking a soufflé: Sometimes all the necessary ingredients combine into something magical, and sometimes those same ingredients just fall flat. Such is David Robson’s new farce After Birth of a Nation, premiered by plucky City Theater Company in Wilmington, Delaware. It’s a confection with some good stuff that nevertheless is unfulfilling.
The setup certainly merits interest. On February 18, 1915, the White House hosted its first film screening: D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a racist pseudo-history celebrating the Ku Klux Klan, based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansmen. Robson spins this historical morsel into a play in which President Woodrow Wilson (Paul McElwee) and daughter Margaret (Dylan Geringer), aided by Colonel House (Dan Tucker), toast the director (Jim Burns). A black servant, Clarence (Chris Banker), hopes to kill Griffith. A Southern preacher, Reverend Gamble (George Tietze), wants to seduce Margaret -- and so does his wife, Cora (Kerry Kristine McElrone). Jeff Hunsicker arrives later as a Russian ambassador.
Hilarity, as they say, ensues -- except it doesn't. Robson and director Michael Gray follow the recipe for farce, charging ahead loudly and frantically, but their cast can't keep up; scenes with more than three actors onstage play like bumper cars.
Their shenanigans occur in a White House side room (designed by Vicki Neal and Richard A. Kendrick) that’s too small for the action required. Actors are mashed together, forced to pretend not to see two people hiding under a small bench or standing six inches out of their direct line of sight. Worse yet, most of the characters are supposed to be fooled by gender-switching disguises; it’s not funny because it’s so unbelievably done that the duped characters just seem stupid.
While this moment in time seems ripe for presidential satire, and some occurs -- for example, House encourages Wilson to “make America grand again” -- Robson's script steers clear of serious issues and finishes the play with a whitewash (in more ways than one) that rinses away the characters' realistic racism. Griffith calls Clarence "boy," but at the end buys Clarence's screenplay unseen, and they shake hands as friendly partners. Racist characters shrug off their biases and toss small opportunities to grateful black people in a way that never happened in real life.
I hate to ask a play to be something it isn't, but After Birth of a Nation’s historical setting parallels today's political war zone (which has also inspired some great comedy) too much to settle for lazy laughs from Cora mispronouncing common words, awkward drunken slapstick, and men in dresses. I would never suggest that a play be longer, but room exists in this brisk, toothless 90 minutes (with intermission!) to humorously -- and meaningfully -- explore an idea or two through satire, and perhaps connect more relevantly with the present. The most biting moment of After Birth of a Nation is its title.
Some good ingredients went into the oven, but what came out is only half baked.