An All-Out Political Satire on Iran-Contra Affair - and a Bronx Tale of Growing Up

MASTGERGATE `A play on words' by Larry Gelbart. Directed by Michael Engler. At the Criterion Stage Center Right. LARRY GELBART'S ``Mastergate'' matches the antic word play of a Marx Brothers script with the savage indignation of a Jonathan Swift. In his first return to the Broadway theater since ``Foxy'' (1976), the playwright most notably remembered for TV's ``M*A*S*H'' and for the stage musical ``A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum'' has targeted the Iran-contra hearings for an all-out satirical attack on the shenanigans involved in such a protracted Washington happening. The result, at the slightly incongruous Criterion Stage Center Right, can be seen as the funniest angry play or the angriest funny play in the limited realm of stage political satire.

Designer Philipp Jung has converted Stage Right into a sort of impromptu Washington hearing room, replete with dais, TV cameras, and monitors. Beneath an enormous group portrait of the Founding Fathers, a collection of what O'Casey's Jack Boyle might have called ``twisthers'' obfuscate the facts and befuddle their inquisitors. Euphemisms, oxymorons, double-speak, gibberish, and other forms of verbal evasion abound. In such a congressional hearing, as in war, truth is the first casualty.

Mr. Gelbart has subtitled his comic cartoon ``a play on words.'' Performed without intermission and running for less than two hours, the prolonged sketch is also a comic commentary on language use and misuse. Some samples: ``Those who forget the past are certain to be subpoenaed. ... His compliance was of the non variety. ... I only heard it as hearsay. ... At the feet of the head of the CIA. ... My activity was limited to the extent of my participation. ... This shoe happens to fit like a glove. ... Representative Sellers is himself a Vietnam veteran, having flown several missions into Hanoi with Jane Fonda....''

Working its way through the verbiage is the tale of a plot to save a Central American country known as Ambigua from the toils of Marxism-Leninism. The administration is represented principally by Maj. Manley Battle (Daniel von Bargen), who was dispatched to Ambigua for a covert operation: to make ``Tet: the Movie,'' based on ``Tet: the Book.'' Much be-medalled Battle is more than a match for his questioners. The author caps the mock probe by raising the ghost of a late CIA director for an ominous epilogue, accompanied by eerie light and sound effects.

Contributing to the confusion - and laughter - are a corps of comically stalwart actors cast as committee members, witnesses, lawyers, wives, and Total Network Newscasters. The production was directed for comic fluidity by Michael Engler.

A BRONX TALE Written and performed by Chazz Palminteri. Directed by Mark W. Travis. At Playhouse 91.

`A BRONX TALE'' vividly recalls a young boy's growing up in an Italian-American neighborhood of New York City's nothernmost borough. Chazz Palminteri's solo exercise evokes a time (the 1960s), a milieu, and some of its denizens - the actor-author portrays 18 characters in the course of his one-man group portrait.

Central among them is an Italian-American youngster nicknamed ``C'' by Johnny, a neighborhood gangster unable to cope with the lad's unpronounceable Italian name. Their odd friendship develops after ``C'' refuses to identify Johnny in connection with a killing the boy had witnessed from the front stoop of his family's tenement. (``You did a good thing for a bad man,'' says ``C'''s father.)

The contrast becomes clearer as the child matures into adolescence. His hard-working bus-driver father stands at opposite poles to his flashy mentor in the ways of gambling and street hustling. ``C'' begins to discover that his industrious father, not the smalltime gangster, is the real ``tough guy'' in the dangerous world surrounding the small Bronx enclave.

Author Palminteri has filled out his autobiographical morality play with dramatic incident as well as with rich incidental characterization. Under Johnny's wordly tutelage, ``C'' experiences the excitements of crap shooting. As an adolescent, he becomes infatuated with a black girl at his high school, a brief encounter that leads to confused racial violence. The play's solemn finale is relieved of mere theatricalism by the substance of the work as a whole: the accuracy of Mr. Palminteri's comic observations, the honesty of his insights, and the affection with which he brings the characters of his tale to life.

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