Celebrated novelist Edmund White drew inspiration for his new play, Terre Haute, now at 59E59 Theaters, from fellow writer Gore Vidal’s controversial essays about terrorist Timothy McVeigh that appeared in The Nation and Vanity Fair. But while some aspects of the 80-minute two-hander are provocative and engaging, other moments feel static or forced.
In real life, Vidal and McVeigh exchanged correspondence, but never met. In White’s fictionalized account, James Brevoort (Peter Eyre) — a thinly veiled stand-in for Vidal — arrives at the high-security prison in Terre Haute, Indiana where the McVeigh-like Harrison (Nick Westrate) is being held, prior to his execution by lethal injection. “Are all sociopaths so charming?” James wonders following their initial meeting, hinting at the very personal relationship that the two will develop over the course of the drama.
James is there to interview Harrison, hoping to get the Death Row inmate to talk about the actual details of his attack on the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City (the same target chosen by McVeigh), which he has not spoken about to anyone. As James confides to the audience, he tries several different tactics to keep his subject off balance, including insulting his intelligence or praising the same, and getting him to talk about emotionally laden subjects such as his relationship with his grandfather. He even steers the conversation to Harrison’s sex life, which makes the younger man flustered and uncomfortable. However, Harrison also seems curious about the bisexual James’ own sexual escapades. A homoerotic tension infuses their interactions, even if the bulk of their conversations revolve around political ideology.
The play makes clear the class divisions between the well-to-do James and the lower middle class Harrison. The two may share certain political beliefs, but their responses to events are also determined by their educational background and economic circumstances. Much of the play is centered on their ideas and philosophies, which sometimes lead to stretches of the play that are intellectually rich but dramatically uninteresting. Conversely, when their opposing opinions lead to shouting matches, the confrontations seem oddly contrived.
Part of the blame for this may lie with director George Perrin, who undercuts the effectiveness of the play’s major confrontation by positioning Eyre with his back to the audience. There’s also too much business with turning on and off the tape recorder that James brings with him. Since prison rules dictate that their visits can only be twenty minutes at a time, there’s no reason that the recorder shouldn’t be running throughout. It’s possible that James wants to show that certain things will be off the record, but since Harrison never asks him not to record, the decision to focus so much attention on what is and isn’t on tape is questionable.
Eyre has a strong stage presence, and some of his more softly delivered speeches are quite good. Unfortunately, he is less successful with the more impassioned moments within the show, and delivers a fairly mannered performance. For his part, Westrate well conveys his character’s deep-held convictions, sexual confusion, and unpredictability. His charismatic turn also proves unsettling as it occasionally comes as a shock to be reminded that Harrison is a mass murderer.