We know the drill by now.
A politician gets caught in a scandal over his lurid extramarital escapades. At a news conference, he apologizes to his family and his constituents, and says he’ll seek guidance “during this difficult time,” while his wife stands by his side, silent and stone-faced.
In Seattle dramatist Stephanie Timm’s striking new play “Tails of Wasps,” a congressman named Frank (played with force and restraint by Paul Morgan Stetler) joins this not-so-exclusive Bad Boy Club. But what Timm and a razor-sharp New Century Theatre Company (NCTC) cast portray here is not the public humiliation and media mea culpa reminiscent of (former governor) Eliot Spitzer or (ex-congressman) Anthony Weiner.
It is the private lust and anguish played out behind the drapes of generic upscale-hotel rooms. And if this rumination on the nexus of sex, dominance and politics is not as focused or revelatory as one might hope, NCTC’s “Tails of Wasps” (under Darragh Kennan’s acute, unsparing direction) certainly stings.
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Peter Dylan O’Connor’s well-appointed set, neatly tucked into a multipurpose room of ACT Theatre, stands in for several similar hotel bedrooms. Arrayed around the small playing area, at times uncomfortably close to the actors, we are voyeurs to Frank’s increasingly disturbing encounters with four different women.
The first, Rachel (Brenda Joyner), is a pretty young campaign aide who lingers after an election victory party in a nervous attempt to seduce Stetler’s wary, but tantalized, Frank.
Rachel comes on strong to this married public figure and father of two. (The script’s language and foreplay are sexually graphic.) Her attraction to Frank (and his to Rachel) isn’t just a physical thing. It’s also a product of her idealization of a “great man” destined to do “great things.”
Power is indeed an aphrodisiac, explicitly for Rachel but also for Becca (Sylvie Davidson), the polished, high-priced call girl “servicing” Frank on a later occasion.
When Frank realizes Becca recognizes him as a legislator, his distress and surprise are not credible. (Don’t politicos court publicity and recognition?) Neither, entirely, is his transformation from practiced consumer of ritualized sex games to ardent suitor ready to sacrifice everything for a working gal.
“Tails of Wasps” rambles and wobbles at times, and its ancient Greek references are stilted and unnecessary. But it flares up as Frank’s sexual appetites and his compulsive need for constant, adoring reaffirmation complicate his life.
Confronted about his infidelity by his enraged wife Deborah (terrific Betsy Schwartz, in a four-alarm fire of a performance), Frank’s excuses about being a sex addict, and overstressed by work, sound lame. Isn’t he just immature and greedy, as Deborah contends?
But Timm’s portrait of a man who is commanding up front and yet crumbling inside, is ultimately empathetic. And Frank’s post-rehabilitation backsliding with a cheap street prostitute who goes psycho on him is an utterly harrowing descent into the depths of self-loathing.
Hannah Mootz has a stunning turn as this young hooker — vulnerable at first, a terrifying virago later. She’s so affecting you want to know more of her story, and the also compelling Deborah’s, and Becca’s. (The political groupie Rachel is less intriguing.)
One of the strengths of “Tails of Wasps” is its equal interest in tracking Frank’s complicated desires and letting strong female characters articulate their own needs.
What one does crave is more knowledge of Frank’s political stance, what he means about “fighting the good fight” against the forces of evil. How do his ideals compute with or contradict his sexual obsessions and power ambitions? When you vote in the politician, you also get the whole person.
Misha Berson: email@example.com