Transforming The Manchurian Candidate, one of the most lauded suspense films of the 1960s, into a live stage production is no easy feat.  John Frankenheimer’s 1962 tale of a Korean War vet brainwashed into becoming a political assassin was not only brilliant film making but tapped into the Red Scare hysteria that brought about the McCarthy hearings and a bunch of anti-communist films like The Red Menace and I Married A Communist. (Frankenheimer’s film was based on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel.) Though John Lahr’s 1994 stage adaptation ends up closer to Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake than to the original, what’s important to playgoers is that Lahr’s suspense drama accomplishes the rare task of keeping a live theater audience on the edge of their seats from its first scene to its shattering conclusion.  Even more noteworthy than the success of the adaptation is the fact that August Viverito and T L Kolman’s The Production Company has managed to squeeze a widescreen movie onto a “matchbook”-sized set with truly impressive results.

Admittedly, updating a classic Cold War thriller to contemporary times does lose some of the original’s power.  It’s harder to conceive of an America driven to hysteria over Japanese real estate deals than it was to imagine the authentic 1950s/60s fear of a Communist takeover.  The original’s premise of captured soldiers sent to Manchuria to be brainwashed was made real by the many Korean War POWs “programmed” into making anti-American statements and worse. The play’s imagining of a “Manchurian Project” is a bit more farfetched. Still, the basic plot remains the same, and it’s a doozy of a plot.

An American infantry patrol in a Middle East “peacekeeping expedition” is kidnapped and taken to a secret location where one of the soldiers, Raymond Shaw (Michael A. Newcomer), is brainwashed so that the mention of a single word, “solitaire,” will provide a subconscious trigger and turn him into a killer. Conveniently, Raymond has also been programmed to forget any murders he may commit.

In order to cover up the kidnapping, the other members of Shaw’s platoon have been brainwashed into believing that their commanding officer heroically saved their lives, an act which has won Raymond the Congressional Medal Of Honor.

There’s only one hitch.  Raymond’s army buddy Ben Marco (Beau Puckett) has begun to have recurring nightmares in which he recalls his friend being commanded to strangle one of the platoon to death. Could this dream not be a product of post-traumatic stress but an actual memory of an innocent man’s murder?  As Ben begins to investigate the truth behind his nightmares, he comes to suspect that they may somehow be connected to the political aspirations of Raymond’s stepfather Senator Johnny Iselin (Rich Skidmore) and the “woman behind the man,” Raymond’s Dragon Lady of a mother, Mrs. Eleanor Iselin (Amanda Karr).

The ProdCo’s Manchurian Candidate is about as cinematic a production as can be imagined on the stage of tiny black box theater, thanks to Robert Craig’s crackerjack direction, a design team extraordinaire, and some breathtakingly electric performances, particularly the tour de force work of tigress Karr.

The play begins with a bang, with rifle-toting soldiers on Middle East battle lines suddenly surrounded by sounds of enemy fire and the whir of an approaching rescue helicopter. Cut to a haunted-eyed Raymond Shaw accepting his Medal Of Honor with the words “The wrong man died. I wish it was me,” prompting Raymond’s dragon of a mother to spit out, “Don’t you ever embarrass me again.” Clearly, this is a woman not to be crossed, not by her son, and certainly not by a husband uninterested in being anything but a U.S. Senator. No, Johnny Iselin is “executive material,” and Eleanor is going to see to it that he is elected Vice President.

Meanwhile, Ben Marco is dreaming yet again of Raymond being ordered to “shoot the Captain through the head,” a murder which Raymond immediately blocks out, thanks to an “amnesia component” what was part of the 27-hour “implantation process.”  An ordinary deck of playing cards contains the assassination trigger, the Queen Of Diamonds.  

As Johnny and Eleanor Iselin stir up anti-Japanese sentiments in their bid for the White House, Raymond kills again, and again, with people instructing him to “play a hand of Solitaire” seemingly everywhere. 

Will Ben be able to stop Raymond from committing the ultimate act of political assassination? As the seconds tick by leading up to The Manchurian Candidate’s explosive finale, The ProdCo production stirs up genuine edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Lahr’s script comes across more screenplay than stage play, some of its dozens of scenes lasting not much more than a minute, and the required set changes end up akin to 10 to 15 second pauses between scenes in a movie thriller.  Fortunately, Viverito’s ingeniously versatile yet simple set keeps lost time to a minimum, and Angie Bryant’s sound design maintains suspense even during blackouts. Add to that some truly stellar work by The Manchurian Candidate’s cast, and you have a stage thriller that succeeds against odds.

StageSceneLA heralded Newcomer’s first Southland appearance a few months back in South Coast Rep’s superb revival of The Heiress. His L.A. debut is equally impressive.  Blessed with leading man good looks, Montgomery Clift eyes, and first-rate acting chops, Newcomer could soon find himself a TV or big screen star. Puckett takes over the Frank Sinatra/Denzel Washington role and plays the heck out of it, creating a an action hero in the classic movie tradition and a powerful portrait of a man in emotional crisis. Skidmore is so real as bombastic but henpecked Senator Johnny Iselin that it is easy to is easy to imagine him a Fox News regular.  Statuesque beauty Lara Hughes is very good indeed as Eugenie Cheney (no relation to Dick), Ben’s love interest.

Other cast members (Toni Domanico, David Ghilardi, Kelly Graham, Robert Moon, and Spiro Pappas) do fine work playing multiple roles each, from cheerleaders to doctors to soldiers to the President Of The United States.

Still, it is the powerhouse performance of Karr that is likely to remain the longest in audience memories.  Like Angela Lansbury in the original film and Meryl Streep in the remake, Karr gets an actress’s dream role here, one of the most dastardly, conniving mothers ever to burn up the screen or stage. (Like Lansbury, who was only three years older than her screen son Laurence Harvey, Karr is way too young to have given birth to Newcomer, but this is a woman with more than enough bucks to have had “work done.”) For about fifteen minutes in the second act, The Manchurian Candidate absolutely belongs to Karr, in one of the most breathtaking monologs ever, the kind of bravura acting that in movies wins an Oscar. In Karr’s hands, Eleanor Iselin is more than just a force of nature. She is a hurricane, a forest fire, and an earthquake all rolled into one petite but terrifying package.

In addition to Viverito’s set and Bryant’s sound design, Ric Zimmerman’s lighting effectively enhances The Manchurian Candidate’s many moods, flashbacks, and scenes of suspense.

With its eight 2008 LA Weekly Theatre Award nominations and seven Ovation Award noms, the bar has been set high for The Production Company’s 2009 season.  Following an excellent Twilight Of The Golds, an absolutely sensational The Manchurian Candidate keeps that bar set high indeed.

The Production Company, Chandler Studio Theatre, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
April 3, 2009

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