Danny Beiruti and Peter Sprague in Red-Haired Thomas
(© Carl Skutsch)
Danny Beiruti and Peter Sprague in Red-Haired Thomas
(© Carl Skutsch)
As you enter the Soho Think Tank's production of Robert Lyons' shaky political satire Red-Haired Thomas, now at the Ohio Theatre, you walk down a royal blue carpet past suspended images of various Founding Fathers of the United States. The blue runner winds its way in a U-shape around the apron of the stage, while surrounding both sides of the playing area -- which is littered with white stacks of newspapers -- are a set of seven pillars draped in dark red cloth. It's not until you sit and take in this sight (designed by Tom Gleeson) that the giant, abstract image of a United States flag takes hold.

The lights then come up on a sickly old man with sore feet and crippling migraines who turns out to be none other than Thomas Jefferson (Alan Benditt). And before long, we meet two men who are supposedly Jefferson's sons: Cliff (Peter Sprague), a white, blond, professional gambler who patronizes the Manhattan newsstand run by his "brother," Iftikhar (Danny Beiruti), an Arab immigrant from a former Soviet nation who has risked everything to fight for democracy there.

Lyons raises some worthy questions about who the true heirs of Jefferson are in this new millennium. Who are the freedom fighters and who are the terrorists? What are we prepared to sacrifice for our countries, our families, and ourselves? What are the risks in trying to export Jeffersonian democracy to volatile corners of the earth in order to serve our own economic interests? And when, in the words of Leonard Cohen, is democracy coming to the U.S.A.?

Unfortunately, this isn't to say that Red-Haired Thomas manages to answer these questions in any satisfactory way, or frankly to even ask them, except in isolated moments. The play's somewhat shallow dialogue tends to sink under the weight of its own metaphors, as when Cliff begins sporting black cowboy gear while his precocious daughter, Abby (Nicole Raphael), and Iftikhar both find themselves dressing like Jefferson. Cliff's wife, Marissa (Danielle Skraastad), by the way, is a risk-management consultant, which does raise intriguing questions about how compatible that marriage is. (One clue: The real problem for her is not that he's a gambler, but that he's no longer a very good one.)

But, even for a wacky satire like this one, it helps to have some grounding in reality. Jefferson obviously stands in for more than just one man here. But it would serve the play better if it were a bit more rigorous with a fact or two, like in its repeated assertions that Jefferson was the author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. (Actually, he was out of the country during the years when both were drafted.)

More importantly, the play could use a stronger production than the one given by director Oliver Butler. The cast's work is far too uneven -- with the best performances coming from Raphael and Skraastad -- and much of the staging is lackadaisical (except for a very funny use of the space in the final scene). Still, it's touching to see these issues being grappled with dramatically in the early stages of the Obama era.