It was a coincidence that Theatre Pro Rata opened its current production, William Mastrosimone's "Cat's Paw," on the weekend of the 9/11 anniversary. (They traditionally open their fall production the weekend after Labor Day.) But the hot-button play, a meditation on terrorism, politics and media, is certainly current.
A group of eco-terrorists are holding an EPA official hostage, demanding publication of their manifesto. When they are unsuccessful, they ignite a car bomb in front of the Senate. Then they kidnap a television news reporter to document their position.
Mastrosimone was quite prescient when he wrote the play in 1985, before the Unabomber or the Oklahoma City bombing. (He updated the script in 2010, adding references to 9/11 and Al-Qaida, but they prove more distracting than illuminating.)
The play is set up as an extended confrontation between Victor, the head of the eco-terrorists, and Jessica, the reporter. She wants to get her story, an interview with the EPA hostage, and Victor wants to control it.
The parallels between them are obvious, both operating as if the ends justify the means. Mastrosimone sets up a compelling moral quagmire, but trying to establish an ethical equivalency is dishonest: only one of them is involved in killing people.
At 90 minutes, the play is about 20 minutes too long. The "action" devolves too frequently into long, ideological monologues. Theatre Pro Rata artistic director Carin Bratlie is an actor's director, drawing out four strong performances, but she is not quite able to overcome the static nature of the script with appropriate action.
As Victor, David Beukema effectively captures the play's ambiguities. He is a passionate visionary, who's willing to sacrifice even his friends. He is almost able to make all his speechifying gripping.
Katherine Kupiecki's Jessica matches his intensity and commitment, and their scenes together crackle. By contrast, Katie Willer brings a sweet innocence to one of Victor's idealist supporters.
One of the strongest performances comes from Nathan Tylutki as the EPA executive. While coping with the emotional effects of extended captivity, he still remains officious enough to try and rationalize away his bureaucratic bungling.
Mastrosimone doesn't quite know how to resolve the conflict and resorts to cheap theatrics. The performances linger in the mind, if not the ideas.