We all know the story: a U.S. senator from Idaho enters a busy bathroom at large airport. An undercover police officer in the adjacent stall witnesses a “lewd gesture” and toe-tapping beneath the divider. The senator is hauled to an interrogation room in the bowels of the airport. Off the Record, the new play by first-time playwright and long-time actress Lynn Allison, is not the Larry Craig story.
“It’s not that story under a different name,” said Boise Contemporary Theater Artistic Director Matthew Cameron Clark, who plays the role of officer Joe Mahoney. “It uses our awareness of that story as a launch pad, and ends up going in a very surprising direction.”
While related thematically to the Craig scandal of 2007, involving undercover officer Dave Karsnia’s apprehension of the Republican senator, the names and details have been changed. Instead, Allison’s senator is named John Michael Goodwin, and the upstart young officer is the white-bread Joe Mahoney. The play begins moments after the bathroom stall bust, but she stresses the story is not a lampoon.
“It’s not at all intended to be a dramatization of those events. It’s intended to be an exploration of those events,” said Allison over coffee. “Ultimately, fundamentally, it’s two people in a room forced to deal with each other, and all that goes with that. It navigates a number of different waters, so to speak.”
Some of those waters include political debate on heady issues. But it also begs the question of what a play about a closeted senator confronting the law looks like free of the national media spin. The details of Craig’s transgressions were played out time and again as the scandal around the senator unfolded, the jokes and puns often writing themselves. However the larger issues related to the situation went largely unexplored.
“I was kind of handed a situation, and I thought, ‘Oh, it’d be interesting to see what their on-the-record exchange was, and then what happens if you turn off the tape recorder. And what could happen,’” said Allison.
The public knows little about the emotionally charged atmosphere in the room, though the conversation was officially recorded between Karsnia and Craig. Chances are body language and subtext was terse, official and awkward. Allison takes full advantage of that situation to segue into larger discussions of identity.
“‘Who are you?’ is the fundamental question. And, ‘What makes you tick?’” said Allison. “It’s trying to ultimately humanize everybody, rather than just drawing lines in the sand. I mean there’s plenty of that, and plenty of hypocrisy in high places. But we know that story.”
Instead, Allison suggested that the play is a chance for the audience to understand the entirety of the two men’s characters—an exploration entirely left out of what was covered nationally. At its core is the senator’s forced outing, and how his covert efforts caught up with him. Clark plays Mahoney alongside Stephen C. Bradbury as Sen. Goodwin.
“They both have a reason to talk about being gay and whether or not the public is aware of your sexuality,” said Clark. “It deals a lot with hiding and public perception, and sort of deliberately creating your public personality. It’s very much crafting a character. We all do that.”
Crafting a character is a skill that Allison has been honing for years as an actress with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. Clark and BCT’s Managing Director Helene Peterson suggest Allison’s career is what makes Off the Record so compelling.
“There’s no question that her work as an actor has lead to her being able to write really exciting dialogue ... It may be her first play, but she’s been telling stories on stage for quite a while,” said Clark. “She’s clearly paying attention.”
But getting the play off the page and onto its feet has been a much different process than Allison typically experiences as an actress—it required tapping into Boise’s larger theater community. A Kickstarter campaign for the production overshot its funding goal of $10,000 by 25 percent. Allison also submitted the play to BCT’s 5x5 reading series, where she obtained a better understanding of theater as a whole.
“If you’re saying somebody else’s words, you’re responsible for that little piece of it,” said Allison. “It’s still nerve-wracking on some level, but to have other people say words that you put down on the page, you feel much more responsible.”
According to Peterson, the 5x5 reading series is designed to hone the skills of Idaho talent and for BCT to try brave or bold new things, all of which describe Allison’s Off the Record.
“It’s amazing how much time these things take. It’s not something that happens overnight, especially as a first time playwright,” said Peterson.
All that poking and prodding in the editing process is difficult for any artist. Allison said that, at first, she was tempted to rewrite sections or massage language when an issue came up. But at some point, she had to let the words stand on their own.
“Writing a play is like writing a piece of literature that isn’t really complete until it is on its feet. Even the reading aloud of a play can be different than getting it on its feet and getting it in front of an audience,” said Allison. “That’s the most telling; that’s going to be the most informative.”
Allison handed off the play to be crafted into a finished product by director Dwayne Blackaller, with help from Clark and Bradbury. Once they mold the words into living, breathing characters, the stage manager will take over, and Allison’s baby will take its first steps.
“You come to discover a play is just like a blueprint for a house,” said Allison. “It depends on who your general contractor is, the craftsmen you’re pulling in. Your product can be totally different from one expression to another.”