The Princemaker offers characters that come across as surprisingly one-note, a fault accredited to both text and actor. Character arcs were sometimes manifested too subtly to pick up on, resulting in a feeling that the piece was too wordy. Not in terms of level of vocabulary but in the sense that what was said probably could have been accomplished in half the time. I felt disengaged. You’re not going to sit through Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? unless you feel somewhat on the line for George or Martha, which is why you’re interested in seeing them go head-to- head in the domestic boxing ring.
The same rules apply to the political boxing ring. A satire on the intersection of politics and money, Robert Gelberg’s The Princemaker follows eighteen-year- old millionaire heir Leslie Moore (Ian Bouillion) as he decides to personally fund young, “sexy” Congressman George Lee’s (Carey Seward) campaign for presidency. Les copes with his own demons and with being in the shadow of his father’s legacy. George deals with the products of Les’ insurmountable back-and- forth paranoia and festering control issues. At first, they’re allies. Then enemies. Then allies. Then enemies. Until I just lost track.
If Les is the cause, then George is the effect, and as such, Carey Seward does the best job he can in bringing substance to the role, despite the stakes and gravity of the situation feeling too low for him throughout the piece. With the exception of a minimal sound design, no production designer is credited in the program, and that was quite apparent onstage. As is often the case with two-hander, dialogue-driven, drawing-room plays, Alessandra Affinito’s staging felt as clunky as the text at times, but ultimately handled the non-transformative space she was given very well.
If you’re going to have a villainous protagonist, you have to allow the audience to love them in some way, but I failed to find one likable characteristic in Les. My greatest take away from this show was the importance of a redeeming quality. Why do we love, or “love to hate” Patrick Bateman in American Psycho? Les faces no repercussions and there is presumably nothing that can get in the way of what Les wants except for Les himself. This forces any expression of obstacle into an internalized struggle for Les. However, I didn’t find that interesting to watch because I couldn’t decipher his intentions through his neurosis and the symptoms thereof.
Each of the ten vignettes had a very clear “I want you to do this…” usually dictated by Les, sometimes the exact antithesis of the previous scene. (I pick on Les rather than George because he is the primary proponent of rising action in the play.) Until the tables are turned in the final scene, what is really at stake for Les? I was frequently left asking, why? Why does Les do what he does in the way that he does? But also, why write this show? Sure, to display the corruptibility of politics in an election season… and yet it still somehow seemed more for the playwright himself than for the audience. Otherwise, the play wouldn’t have moved at the speed it did, showing such little variance in pace. Although this may have been the fault of the actors, in order for dialogue-heavy pieces to work, I believe they often need to go at a rapid-fire speed; no time to revel in the moment until it’s absolutely necessary. I also missed out on some of that essential dialogue itself, struggling to hear the actors in the WOW Cafe venue.
In this House of Cards fan fiction, it feels like the playwright has tried to turn a thesis into a play, armed with theory from Machiavelli to Kantorowicz. (One line seemed to have jumped directly from those pages: “The king is not representative of the state, the king is the state.”) Unlike Francis Underwood, whose reason and rhetoric compellingly convinces others that what he wants is the most beneficial option for them, Les was either too transparent, too unclear, or too much the archetypal villain for me to want to watch his self-serving plot unfold.
P.S. A NOTE ON PRODUCTION VALUE (or, On Gaff Taping Fabric to Folding Chairs Fifteen Minutes Before the Show and Calling It Upholstery): The first judgment one makes when walking into a theatre is aesthetic. By allowing your production design to not look the best it can be, you’re setting a standard of mediocrity before anyone even walks onstage, or opens their mouth. Pardon me if this sounds elitist, but if it’s not within the budget, then isn’t it the job of the theatremaker to find a different way of doing it? This is a tough intersection of several concepts I’m unsure how to reconcile: theatrical expectation of suspension of disbelief, allowing yourself to be taken seriously, and making do with the resources you have available to you. Regardless, I’m not a fan of tacky things, unless you’re going all the way with it. 2/5
The Princemaker is on at WOW Cafe, August 23 and 25.