For their production of Gelbart's Mastergate, the Actor's Group has transformed their intimate 31-seat space into the site of a congressional hearing deliberating a shifty connection between the United States government and Master Pictures in Hollywood - complete with cameras, a Senate sub-committee whose members are largely absent (replaced with black-and-white cardboard cut-outs), and a Greek chorus in the form of a gossipy reporter.

The shifty connection is this: Money is being laundered to fund rebel forces in the small South American nation of Ambigua and a Senate sub-committee is investigating the height and breadth of the scandal.

This may all sound slightly familiar. After all, scandals are about as much a part of government as good, clean election protocol - campaigning, voting, and being appointed President of the United States by the Supreme Court.

But recent memory aside, it is the dialogic abstractions of Gelbart's script, and it's lack of historical specificity, that make it so familiar as it becomes representative of any number of scandals over the past century: the Crédit Mobilier and Whiskey Ring scandals of Grant's administration, the Teapot Dome scandal of Harding's administration, Nixon's Watergate, Reagan's (and arguably Bush 41's) Iran-Contra, or the various scandals that marred the Clinton Administration.

While Mastergate may not have glaringly recognizable characters like Oliver North or familiar catchphrases like "I did not have intercourse with that woman", it is a template for any of the aforementioned presidential scandals…and any number of those to come. And it's very funny. In fact, Mastergate is a rapid-fire volley of swift-witted one-liners that are inimitably Gelbart. Gelbart's name is probably most recognizable as the man who developed Robert Altman's similarly clever M*A*S*H for television audiences (giving us 11 years of the Korean War in the immediate post-Vietnam era). Audiences familiar with Gelbart's other projects - which include classics like Tootsie and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum - know to expect fast-paced, rhythmic comedic verbiage.

Gelbart's dialogue relies on pacing that is near-musical in its delivery. Without this rhythm, and without just the right emphasis on his well-positioned puns and double entendres, many of the otherwise hysterically funny lines can become lost in static recitations. These static recitations are the major drawback of this production. Penny L. Moore directs Johnny Crear and Rod Britt to strong performances, which are the highlight of the show mostly because Crear and Britt seem to understand that humor relies not only on characterization, but on chemistry - and they are wary not to betray their too-serious expressions with the occasional smirk.

The final monologue, delivered by Wiley Slaughter (F. William Parker), diminishes the anticipated payoff due to bad sound from a digital projection.

Jean Carol's performance as Merry Chase is dead-on, reminding us that the audience is sometimes the accomplice in ratings-driven scandals and turning the finger back on those who would perpetuate rather than contemplate. As Gelbart himself once observed: "If vaudeville had died, television was the box they put it in."

Mastergate runs through Sunday, October 31, 2004 at the Actor's Group Theatre, 4378 Lankershim Boulevard in Universal City.


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