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Castro's Beard

Christopher D. Roberts, David Hutson, Castro,
Jeff Berry, and H. Clark Kee in Castro's Beard
(Photo: Steven Vote)
At this point, it's something of an open secret that the Central Intelligence Agency spent many years hatching plots to kill Fidel Castro and/or remove the Bearded Hero from power. The Bay of Pigs fiasco--in which Cuban exiles with half-hearted American support were sent in to storm Havana--is the most famous instance, but the C.I.A. had a million of 'em, many right out of Wile E. Coyote's playbook. Why not stick an explosive in one of Castro's famous cigars or daub it with a little botulism toxin? Any reason we couldn't find some way to make the big guy's beard fall out, stripping away a symbol of his power?

All of these were actual plans, and the last-mentioned surreal scheme provided the inspiration for Castro's Beard, a new play by the English writer Brian Stewart. The author's conceit is to take us inside a briefing room at C.I.A. headquarters circa autumn of 1960, where a get-the-bastard brainstorm is in full swing. Here we find four agency operatives from different divisions and of disparate temperaments, and we get to eavesdrop on their scheming and squabbling.

Stewart's idea holds up nicely through the first act, and director Lorree True keeps the conversation moving along swiftly. The cast picks up some easy laughs from a series of technical blunders--the overhead projector doesn't work, and neither does the replacement overhead projector--cleverly highlighting the purportedly elite outfit's comical obsession with nailing one guy. It's also amusing that the operation's code name is ORTSAC, which is Castro backwards. What the writer adeptly illustrates is how one out-of-left-field idea (put thallium powder in his socks!) can snowball into another (tamper with his scuba gear!) and another (we'll get him with an exploding seashell!)

In the second act, things start to deteriorate as Stewart struggles to maintain our interest in what is, after all, just four guys in a room talking. After the resolution of the one actual plot element established in the first act--it turns out that Castro is currently in New York to address the UN, and one of our guys is arranging a hit--there isn't much left to do but wait for the operatives to finish their long chat. This may be the first play in history that signals its conclusion with a character saying "Let's wrap this up guys--I have another meeting to go to."

True's cast is a mixed bag. Christopher D. Roberts as Tom Madison, the mildly mad scientist from Technical Operations, is more a collection of irritating tics in an ill-fitting suit than an actual character. As the youthful and naïve Paul Drake, from the "New Guy With So Much to Learn About the World" department, David Hutson struggles to find some emotional layers. Meanwhile, H. Clark Kee does a fine job as Ted Torphy, senior officer and keeper of the peace, but Stewart's script doesn't give him much to do beyond occasionally telling everyone to calm down.

Only hulking Jeff Berry, imposing and incendiary, connects consistently with his character. Then again, it's the best character: Bill Brawner is a service-hardened tough guy, a fanatic with no patience for the way-out-there plans floated by Drake and Madison. He wants simply to "shoot the son of a bitch." Brawner is also the most right-wing of the group; in one of the show's most interesting speeches, he rails at poor Drake in a passionate defense of Joe McCarthy. It's a moment that sums up what's great and what's unsatisfying about Castro's Beard: As a window into the fractious, borderline ludicrous ideologies of anti-communist America, the show is fascinating--but we can only remain fascinated by a bunch of men hollering at each other for so long.


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