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John Lithgow and Sigourney Weaver in Mrs. Farnsworth
(Photo © Fabrice Trombert)
"It's a Watergate world these days," says a character in A.R. Gurney's hilarious and timely new play Mrs. Farnsworth. Political scandal, cover-ups, and secrets are at the heart of this comedy, which stars Sigourney Weaver (in the title role) along with veteran actors John Lithgow and Danny Burstein. Gurney is in top form here, treating his political subject with the attention to character nuance and the comical observance of upper-class WASP mannerisms that made many of his earlier works so popular.

Mrs. Farnsworth is a self-described "rich Democrat" hailing from New Canaan, Connecticut. While liberal in her political outlook, she also abides by the rules set forth by her beloved grandmother, who believed that the practice of addressing people informally by their first names destroyed personal distances and that "the world worked better when people knew where they stood."

Within the play, Mrs. Farnsworth is taking a creative writing class taught by Gordon Bell (Burstein), a writer and lecturer at an unspecified university in lower Manhattan. She wants to write a book based upon her own experiences; it's a politically charged project because a character in it seems to be based upon George W. Bush. When pressed by Gordon to admit this, however, Mrs. Farnsworth is quick to point out: "I never use that name." Suffice it to say that certain things that are revealed about this unnamed character could be embarrassing and even damaging to the current administration. Although Mrs. Farnsworth is eager to tell her story, her husband (Lithgow) is far less keen for her to do so; in fact, he interrupts the class to silence his wife and bring her home.

The play raises provocative questions about moral hypocrisy, the influence of class in American society, and the strategy of utilizing skeletons in the closet -- as opposed to substantive critiques of policy -- to topple administrations. Throughout, Gurney's writing is incisive, funny, and thought provoking. By setting Mrs. Farnsworth in a classroom environment, with the audience serving as the class, he gets away with some of the play's more blatantly didactic statements. Each of the three characters address the "class" on more than one occasion and the multiple viewpoints expressed give the play a Rashoman-like feel, especially in regard to the competing versions of the truth outlined by Mr. and Mrs. Farnsworth.

Weaver perfectly captures the soft-spoken politeness and constrained political passion of her character, offering a multidimensional performance that utilizes class and gender stereotypes without being confined by them. Lithgow is similarly adept at making his character much more than what he initially appears; in particular, his dancing eyes reveal a range of emotions even when his physical mannerisms are restrained.

The most impressive cast member, however, is Burstein. He fully mines the humor and intelligence of his role, and his reactions to the others often take the form of bemused or incredulous expressions that are enhanced by takes to the audience. Such a device is perfectly in character, seeing as how Burstein plays a teacher who has a good rapport with his students. In fact, he creates such a convincing classroom environment that there were a couple times during the performance when I had to remind myself that I was not supposed to respond to the questions he asked or participate in the play's discussions.

Director Jim Simpson is also to be credited for the liveliness of the production; the pacing is crisp and the staging simple yet effective. The uncredited set design consists of a desk, a frequently used chalkboard, and a couple of chairs. The lighting design, by Brian Aldous, is effective in that it does not call attention to itself. Similarly, Claudia Brown's costumes are appropriate for the characters and evoke class differences without belaboring the point.

The starry cast has contributed to a healthy buzz around the show, a sold-out run prior to its opening, and speculation about a transfer. However, Mrs. Farnsworth is much more than a celebrity vehicle; it's also a potent piece of political theater that makes you laugh just as much as it makes you think.

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