Anthony Mackie in McReele(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Anthony Mackie in McReele
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In McReele, Stephen Belber asks the age-old question: Does the end justify the means? He doesn't answer it, which is an author's prerogative. (Isn't this the prerogative exercised by most playwrights when raising the traditionally sticky issue?) Instead, Belber wryly contrives his situations so that patrons have to figure out the dilemma for themselves. He even builds this challenge into the play's McDonald's-ish title, which he might just as well have spelled McReal. That spelling would have even further emphasized the ambiguous nature of the eponymous character's motives. It's likely that Belber -- the author of last year's Match, which also left a crucial question somewhat up in the air at fadeout -- wants ticket buyers to pick up on the pun.

What happens on Neil Patel's shifting set and under Michael Chybowski's efficient lighting? Darius McReele (Anthony Mackie) has been an inmate at a Delaware prison for 18 years after being convicted of shooting a judge's son during a failed drug deal. Claiming innocence throughout his imprisonment, McReele is exonerated only after investigative reporter Rick Dayne (Michael O'Keefe) writes a series of articles that flush out a man called Ronny, who confesses to the crime.

While incarcerated, McReele used his notoriety to champion some creative political ideas; now that he's free to walk the Delaware streets again, some power brokers feels that he's a viable candidate for senator. Before too much valuable hustings time is lost, McReele is running and Dayne has quit his newspaper to run the campaign more or less single-handedly. This complicates the two men's relationships with the women in their lives. McReele's wife, Opal (Portia), had found someone else with whom to spend time but is won back; still, she continues to harbor unexpressed doubts about the man whom she married in haste. Dayne's girlfriend, Katya (Jodi Long), is whole-heartedly behind him until he pulls a fast one on the television news show that she hosts.

The complication that enrages Katya involves the leakage of information regarding McReele's long-held contention that he was a block away when the judge's son was shot and killed. Apparently, he wasn't; he was right in the midst of things. Indeed, what actually happened during the fatal encounter could be significantly different from McReele's version. This is where the means-and-ends consideration comes in. It affects where the four main characters stand, as well as where McReele stands in the senatorial race; it also affects where Jim Cragen (Henry Strozier), the father of the murdered boy, stands when he shows up to confront McReele.

Belber keeps pulling the rug out from under viewers' assumptions, and he has a good deal of naughty fun with politics and political postures. McReele, whose positions on certain issues would predictably be liberal, fools his followers. Over the course of campaigning, he comes out against affirmative action and for racial profiling and the death penalty. (Indeed, McReele could be thought of as a possible counter-argument to The Exonerated.) Consequently, Dayne, who believes in McReele but not his every stance, has do some fast talking to explain himself to Katya. Furthermore, Dayne has to do some deep thinking about his own integrity when it appears that he may be ballyhooing a less than squeaky-clean man. ("You know you have no moral center," Katya says to Dayne at one point. "Thanks," he replies.) The play asks: How should Dayne act? How should any of us act? How does one read one's moral compass when there's no such thing as a Moral Due North?

Beside Belber's taking great delight in politics being inevitably soiled (if not downright filthy), the playwright gives another of his subjects a workout. It's one that he also invoked on stage and film in Tape: The grief that men often cause their women. Both McReele and Dayne may be compromising themselves with the full knowledge of, respectively, Opal and Katya. When love is involved, how much are women expected to overlook, how much to forgive? Belber is canny in introducting the problem and then letting loose the prickly Opal and the loving Katya to speak for themselves. (Some of the author's best writing occurs during the women's outbursts.)

Portia and Anthony Mackie in McReele(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Portia and Anthony Mackie in McReele
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Belber has plotted his cynical/sincere treatise with extreme efficiency. If there's anything lacking here, it's the sense of a larger context for the Delaware election; the action is mostly restricted to what occurs between the four major figures. The playwright also has some minor trouble with dramatic focus. Sometimes McReele seems to be about the title character, other times about Dayne reconciling his attitude toward the title character. Ultimately, it's about both men, and ultimately, that's okay.

Considerably more than okay are Doug Hughes's typically perceptive direction and the actors' performances as they warily circle one another in Paul Tazewell's everyday-contemporary costumes. Anthony Mackie's McReele is slick as can be. Michael O'Keefe does a beautiful job of underplaying Dayne's self-examination. Jodi Long's Katya has grace and grit in equal amounts. Portia, who knows a million ways to say "um-hum" for laughs, commandeers almost every scene that she's in. And Henry Strozier, playing three roles, clicks three times. Coming at us when, as usual, we're reeling (McReeling?) from the dubious probity of politicians, McReele adds fuel to the ever-burning issue.