On the set for Boise Contemporary Theater's new play, Off the Record, a glaring fluorescent tube sways over a small interrogation space peppered with dated furniture. At first glance, it's hard to imagine slogging through a two-hour, two-character production in such a depressing setting. But thankfully, first-time playwright (and frequent Idaho Shakespeare Festival actress) Lynn Allison's smart dialogue transforms the bleak environment into a canvas on which her characters explore regret, long-harbored secrets and, ultimately, identity.
The plot should be familiar to most Idahoans. A senior Republican senator gets busted soliciting sex in an airport men's room. On a pitch-black stage, with the muted sounds of airplane takeoffs and toilets flushing in the background, you hear a soft tap, tap, tap. Giggles ripple through the audience. Then again: tap, tap, tap. And suddenly the toilet tap dancer is hauled into an interrogation room for questioning. But that's where the story takes a sharp turn.
Allison's play is undoubtedly inspired by the Larry Craig debacle, but ultimately, it's not the same story. Sen. John Michael Goodwin, played by Stephen C. Bradbury, is a charming older man who throws his weight around with a smile and a flash of his business card. Officer Joe Mahoney, played by Matthew Cameron Clark, is a petulant wash-up who wields his authority like a loaded gun. There's no doubt from the first tense moments that these two will butt heads.
I didn't expect to find sympathy in Goodwin--a high-power hypocrite living a lie among his family and constituents--but Bradbury played the role flawlessly, with nuance and fragility. When Goodwin staggers to a bench, loosening his tie and gasping for air--shaking and pleading for "a warning or something"--you can feel the weight of public shame closing in on him. Unfortunately, Clark doesn't lend Mahoney that same nuance or sympathy. He plays up Mahoney's unyielding righteousness--"You D.C. guys make the rules, you break the rules, you change the rules"--but when the script calls for softer, more-confessional moments, Clark doesn't rein it in. Though that generally works to the play's disadvantage, Clark shines for a brief moment when bellowing out a rendition of "America the Beautiful"--Goodwin's cellphone ring tone and a recurring motif throughout the play.
Allison's Off the Record is not just a commendable debut, it holds its own next to efforts by much more seasoned playwrights. And though the subject matter might seem overly familiar, it's given a fresh veneer through Allison's insightful, and surprisingly timely, lens.