Assured new drama turns on Watergate-like intrigue

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Bunker Reveries Play by David Shaber. Directed by Allan Carlsen. Starring Ralph Waite, Patricia Elliott, Robert Stattel, Sheila MacRae. An author whose credits include numerous screenplays and short stories, David Shaber makes an assured debut in the stage medium with ``Bunker Reveries,'' at the Roundabout Theatre. Mr. Shaber employs satire and dramatic conflict as he looks askance at the high-stakes world of political loyalties and betrayals involved in events resembling the Watergate and Iran-contra scandals.

The central figure in ``Bunker Reveries'' is Jack Packard (Ralph Waite), a former attorney general who took the fall and went to prison in a scandal that ended the term of President William Skinner (Robert Stattel). Though wounded, the still tough and durable Packard is struggling to rehabilitate himself - in part through a soon-to-be-published book.

Set ``in a small hotel of little note,'' the play opens on a November night in the aftermath of a reunion banquet attended by principals of the Skinner administration. Packard and Margaret Pangborn (Patricia Elliott), his patrician mistress, are awaiting a visit from the former chief executive. The occasion presents Shaber with an opportunity for some pointed political repartee as ideologically liberal Margaret takes on the die-hard right-wingers. In subsequent scenes, Packard berates Skinner for having not only betrayed but abandoned him.

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Yet in the world of political hardball as seen by Shaber, old loyalties endure. Unbeknownst to Margaret, Packard allows Skinner to preview the manuscript of his book. Satisfied with his one-time campaign manager's loyalty, the ex-President confides his tentative plans to run for the Senate from New Jersey; he invites Packard to join the campaign as an anonymous but well-paid consultant.

``The play is not about politics,'' Shaber recently told a New York Times interviewer. ``It's about two people who were involved in a Watergate-type situation ... about their feelings for each other ... about political loyalty and affection and love. Whatever is underneath politics - that's what I hope it's about.''

The outcome involves the resolution of a personal-political conflict - a resolution that may leave some spectators skeptical. Yet the characters are believably, and even bluntly, drawn. The confrontations are sharp and emotionally fraught.

The lively performance staged by Allan Carlsen pays due regard to the strengths of the writing, comedy included. Mr. Waite's Packard is a shaggy bear of a man who, despite cynicism and bitterness, remains susceptible to Skinner's overtures and to the challenge of yet one more hurrah. As Skinner, Mr. Stattel exudes a sleazy bonhomie transparent to Margaret but somehow discounted by the desperate Packard. The handsome Miss Elliott delivers Margaret's cool putdowns with well-bred aplomb and makes a dignified exit when Packard's intentions become clear.

Other players usefully involved in the exposition, soliloquies, and flashbacks of ``Bunker Reveries'' include Kristin Griffith as Packard's bossy daughter; Richard Backus doubling as her wimpy husband and a congressional counsel; Sheila MacRae as the blowzy Mrs. Packard, who did not survive the scandal; and Debra Cole as the Packards' daughter, determined to salvage her life through a new identity.

``Bunker Reveries'' ends on a note of anticlimax or at least uncertainty with Packard's final soliloquy. Like the cloudy skyscape looming over designer David Jenkins's Capitol backdrop, loyalist Packard's future is, to say the least, uncertain. New playwright Shaber's prospects are contrastingly brighter. ``Bunker Reveries'' was lighted by F. Mitchell Dana and costumed by Carol Oditz. It plays through Sept. 6.

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