Richard Nixon’s loyal secretary may have interesting stories, but you won't hear them in this play.
In its 35-year history, it’s hard to imagine People’s Light & Theatre Company has presented any play worse than Susan Bernfield’s baffling Stretch: A Fantasia.
Directed by Daniella Topol, the play focuses on Richard Nixon’s longtime and intensely loyal secretary Rose Mary Woods (the capable Alda Cortese). Woods is notable as the author of the infamous gap in the Watergate tapes. The play’s title refers to her bizarre explanation for how the tape recorder malfunctioned. (Her story was that she stretched to reach for the phone and her foot slipped off a petal activating the recorder.)
Considering the 23 years she spent with Nixon, Woods may have interesting stories to tell, but they aren’t realized in Stretch. Woods describes herself as “a piece of trivia hung out to dry.” She’s had her 18-and-a-half minutes of fame (the period of time the tape was blank or buzzing) and she’s faded into anonymity. In Stretch, Bernfield resurrects Woods from history’s junk heap and inserts her into a fantasia that attempts (and fails) to weave together seemingly disparate elements.
The freewheeling style of Bernfield’s dramatic fantasia is at odds with Woods’ down-to-earth personality. Cortese portrays the Midwestern secretary as a plain-spoken, no-nonsense woman. Yet in Bernfield’s awkwardly poetic script she repeatedly makes bewildering statements like “things look better in the shade” and “behind every great man is a woman with a typewriter strapped to her legs.”
The play jumps erratically between eras and locations and fantasy and reality, but most of Stretch ’s 90 minutes is set in the Ohio nursing home where Woods resides during the 2004 presidential election.
Woods isn’t the most popular resident in the facility. She spends most of her time alone and refers to the other residents as “the nothings.” She becomes fond of a young orderly (Jefferson Haynes) and eventually strikes up a cordial relationship with a resident named Bob (the excellent Tom Teti who manages to forge an authentic character from Bernfield’s nonsensical script).
Bob, who taught high school history for 32 years, describes himself as a “watcher” of history. Woods, on the other hand, has lived it and Bob hopes to use Woods’ experience to engage the residents in the upcoming election between Bush and Kerry. Their relationship provides Stretch with its only (and far too brief) moments of interest.
There is also a subplot involving the orderly and his stoner best friend (Matt Hannagan). The scenes feature the pair smoking pot and engaging in predictable reefer-inspired chatter. When the friend switches to crystal meth, the script issues a stern warning about the dangers of hard drugs and the political indifference of America’s youth.
Although Stretch debuted in 2008, the play is already dated. Bernfield infers that Americans (especially young ones) don’t care enough about politics. The Obama election proved that given the right candidate Americans of all ages can become actively involved in the political process. This, combined with the weak script, make for a surprisingly poor production from People’s Light & Theatre.
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