Drama probes terrorism-TV interplay. `Cat's-Paw' by Mastrosimone at Old Globe in San Diego

Playwright William Mastrosimone has raised important questions about the interplay between terrorism and television coverage of it in his drama ``Cat's-Paw.'' This riveting and disquieting play is now in the midst of what might be called a floating world premi`ere. Originally staged at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, Daniel Sullivan's production has moved intact to San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. (Set and properties made the move as well, which meant that the airlines had to be carefully notified in advance, since most of the properties consist of boxes of firearms, hand grenades, and bomb-making materials.) Mastrosimone is working very close to current headlines here, pushing his audience to confront and ponder an issue raised rather than dealt with on the TV nightly news. He did something similar in ``Extremities,'' a revenge drama about a sexual-assault victim who gains the upper hand over her attacker. This play had a lengthy run in New York and will appear shortly as a film.

``Cat's-Paw'' reveals both playwriting strengths and weaknesses. It is both compulsively watchable and intensely relevant, but it has a tacked-on, unsatisfying ending.

A small band of activists, calling themselves the ``People's Guard,'' have been holding a federal environmental official hostage, demanding space on the front pages of newspapers to make their case against government handling of water pollution. Offstage, they have attacked Environmental Protection Agency headquarters with a car bomb, killing 27 people plus the suicide driver. As the play begins, the holed-up activists have enticed an aggressive television journalist to their hideout to conduct an on-camera interview with the group's leader and the hostage.

The theme is the symbiotic relationship between terrorists and the media, an obvious enough topic on the surface. The virtue of Mastrosimone's script is that he shows us how this relationship works. It becomes dramatically evident that the symbiosis is so subtle that neither the terrorist nor the reporter realizes how the behavior of each is governed by the other.

The TV newswoman, played by Kit Flanagan with a plausible mixture of self-interested guile and genuine journalistic shrewdness, actually conducts a sharp interview -- she isn't consciously glamorizing terror. But the deals she makes with her subject, the ways in which she coaches him and builds up his sense of self-importance to get the story she wants, make her an intrinsic part of the event.

The ``terrorist'' (one of the first deals the journalist makes is to agree to call him an ``urban guerrilla''), on the other hand, has been so conditioned by a lifetime of\watching TV news that he can only envision his own politics as they might appear on the 11 o'clock news. As portrayed by John Procaccino with a convincing range of nervous twitches and angry gestures, he is like a Ralph Nader gone around the bend. His information about water quality is accurate, his concerns are legitimate, but he has somehow come to inhabit a video universe in which horrific actions, filtered through the media, seem to him an appropriate response.

``Cat's-Paw'' is often a very funny play, though presenting the blackest kind of comedy. Mastrosimone has an ear for dialogue that catches nuances of absurdity to which his characters have become deaf. The play also underscores the relative ease with which such a tiny cell of fanatics could paralyze a city.

Daniel Sullivan directs with a fine feel for the real nature of this battleground; the characters are perpetually circling, competing for the best camera angle, sometimes consciously, more often instinctively. The acting, by Mark Jenkins as the cowed hostage and Amy Caton-Ford as the terrorist leader's slightly more humane lieutenant, along with Procaccino and Flanagan, is sharp and credible. Clearly, the final form of ``Cat's-Paw'' is the result of a far healthier sort of symbiotic relationship.

``Cat's-Paw'' still has serious flaws. The characters are well enough drawn to engage our appalled sympathies, but they aren't really more than types illustrating various aspects of this social problem. Mastrosimone rather pulls his punches toward the end, giving the terrorist a hypocritical, crazed aspect that could lead the audience to shrug off the valid issues he is seeking to dramatize.

``Cat's-Paw'' is in the Old Globe's smaller house, the Cassius Carter. Running concurrently in the larger of the company's indoor theaters (the ``Old Globe'' itself) is an amiable rendition of the twangy musical ``Pump Boys and Dinettes.''

``Pump Boys'' is a country-rock revue that beganlife as a cabaret novelty in New York and surprised its own creators by becoming a much-produced national hit.

Both ``Cat's-Paw'' and ``Pump Boys'' run through May 4. The company then takes a short breather before launching its summer season June 4.

Among the six plays which will appear in three theaters over the summer are ``Richard II,'' featuring Brian Bedford; Bedford's own staging of ``Much Ado About Nothing''; and the world premi`ere of Stephen Metcalfe's comedy ``Emily.''

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