WASHINGTON — All art is political, which is to say it comments on how we live, what we believe, what we fear, who we are as a culture and a nation.
Every time Al Bundy, shoe salesman extraordinaire and hero of the sitcom “Married ... With Children,” cracked open a beer and shoved a hand down the front of his slacks, he was saying something passably profound about the role of men in American society, about the diminishing dignity of work, about the sometimes questionable pleasures of the nuclear family.
At the other end of the creative spectrum, the furious action paintings of Jackson Pollock were seen as a kind of postwar propaganda for American freedom, a counterpoint to soul-crushing Soviet socialism. Some critics and scholars even think that Pollock and his fellow abstract expressionists were boosted by the CIA.
The question, really, is whether art can express its politics gracefully, whether art can make a point without belaboring it.
For the new play “FBI Lovebirds: Undercovers,” the answer to that question is very much in the negative. The play first garnered attention last spring for its titillating subject: the frequently amorous, thoroughly anti-Trump text messages between FBI colleagues Lisa Page and Peter Strzok. Former “Superman” actor Dean Cain signed on to play Strzok, while the part of Page went to Kristy Swanson, who had once portrayed Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Swanson and Cain are both of the rare species Conservatus Hollywoodus, which is infrequently spotted in the wild, especially in the Washington, D.C., area.)
The play was written by the Irish-American duo Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, who are conservative journalists and filmmakers. It was supposed to premiere at a theater in Washington, D.C., but the venue backed out because of security concerns, so the production migrated to an amphitheater at a downtown federal building before heading to the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, at National Harbor, Md., where it was performed on Thursday.
Despite its star power and topical theme, the play is about as subtle — and inviting — as overcaffeinated pundits shouting at each other on cable news. The set consists of chairs on an otherwise empty stage. Swanson wears the same white dress, with orange shoulder patches, that Page wore for a closed-door appearance before Congress. Cain, meanwhile, appears in a boring suit, the kind that has long served as a tired symbol of official Washington.
With little for the eyes, one hopes for a feast for the ears. Instead, one gets, well, text messages between two adults, text messages stripped of narrative and context. Text messages like the following: “Martin O’Malley’s a douche.” Whatever one thinks of the former Maryland governor and short-lived 2016 presidential candidate, it’s hard to argue that this is great theater.
To be sure, there is precedent for the work McAleer and McElhinny appear to have had in mind. Mark Hamill, for example, has read some of President Trump’s tweets in the character of Batman nemesis the Joker. And in “The Investigation,” Hollywood stars performed a dramatic reading of Robert Mueller’s report on Russian electoral interference.
Decades before that, performance artist and comedian Andy Kaufmann sometimes read from “The Great Gatsby” during his act for no particular reason.
But all these efforts were somehow ambitious, surprising, unexpected. “FBI Lovebirds” is none of these things. The play seems overly satisfied with itself, as if merely having actors voice lines like “This man cannot be president” — Swanson as Page — is somehow an achievement of its own.
It isn’t, however. Even an audience of conservative stalwarts couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for what should have been an obvious crowd-pleaser but was a snoozer instead. There have been more certifiably excited crowds in the fourth quarter of a New York Knicks game, which, if you have been to a New York Knicks game in the last decade or three, is really saying something.
Perhaps what the play needed was a little “alternative fact,” which in art is sometimes called imagination. What drove Strzok and Page into each other's arms? At what point did the personal crisscross the political? It is inauspiciously ironic that a play about two of the most infamous characters featured in Trumpworld’s “deep state” conspiracies does not have the courage to deviate even slightly from the written record.
Instead, “FBI Lovebirds” hews almost entirely to the texts exchanged between Page, an attorney at the bureau, and Strzok, who in 2016 was an FBI agent conducting a counterintelligence investigation on the Trump presidential campaign, which was suspected of soliciting help from the Kremlin.
There are brief interruptions for bits of congressional testimony, which means that, every few minutes, another guy in a suit comes on the stage to recite yet another aspect of the written record.
Page and Strzok had an extramarital affair that lasted through the summer and fall of 2016. They both hated Trump, and they were both dismayed to see him win the White House. It does not appear that Strzok’s political bias against Trump, expressed so vividly in his texts, interfered with his work, but after Mueller, who was investigating Russian electoral interference, found out about the relationship, he had Strzok dismissed.
The initial texts were revealed publicly shortly after that, accompanied by the sound of the proverbial excrement hitting the proverbial fan. Later, hundreds of pages of texts between Strzok and Page were released. Though neither was ever formally accused of wrongdoing, conservatives have continued to treat the duo as prime examples of a “deep state” conspiracy aligned against the Trump administration.
As for Trump himself, he used an October 2019 rally in Minneapolis to read an exchange between Strzok and Page, doing so as if he were narrating a romance audiobook. The humiliation of that scene led Page to break her silence in an extended interview with Molly Jong-Fast of the Daily Beast. “I had stayed quiet for years hoping it would fade away, but instead it got worse. It had been so hard not to defend myself, to let people who hate me control the narrative. I decided to take my power back,” Page told Jong-Fast. (Page is also suing the Justice Department.)
Trump predictably tweeted about the interview, making sure to call Page “the lover of Peter Strzok” (both Page and Strzok are still apparently with their respective spouses). Shortly before “FBI Lovebirds” was performed at CPAC, the writers and cast met with Trump at the White House.
It is doubtful that either Strzok or Page would get much enjoyment from the play. Then again, it is doubtful that enjoyment was obtained by anyone, regardless of political persuasion. That is because the play is nothing more than two people quite literally reciting text messages, right down to the exclamation points and emojis. One would have more success simply feeding the Strzok-Page texts through a text-to-speech app.
Yes, some of those text messages are salacious. And, of course, Page and Strzok’s predictions that Trump would never become president were wrong. But many people have affairs. And many people make predictions that do not come to pass. Those facts are not necessarily interesting. To render them as art would have taken more talent.
It did not help that Swanson and Cain deliver their lines in a knowing, smirking manner, taking care to let an audience of Trump supporters know that they are in on the joke. Judging by that audience’s tepid reception, the ironic identification was not nearly enough.
Many have criticized Trump’s emotive reading of the Strzok-Page texts at the Minneapolis rally as crude. But at the very least, he had imagination. That is a quality “FBI Lovebirds” glaringly lacks.
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