Change Agent, a world premiere written and directed by Craig Lucas as part of Arena Stage’s Power Plays series, asks the audience to take seriously the proposition that an affair between John F. Kennedy and Mary Pinchot Meyer powerfully influenced major policies of his administration. The play imagines Meyer being a persuasive President-whisperer whose idealism is crucial in nudging Kennedy to ease tensions with the Soviet Union, integrate the Secret Service, and support a civil rights bill. It’s a big ask.
While not a household name, Mary Meyer is the subject of biographies, novels, numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and a true-crime podcast, many of which focus on her suspicious, and unsolved, 1964 murder. Meyer (Andrea Abello) lived in Georgetown when it was the center of the Washington political universe. Her husband, Cord Meyer (Jeffrey Omura), headed the CIA’s “soft power” operation, which suborned or coerced writers, newspapers, magazines, filmmakers, and student organizations to tell a favorable story about the U.S. during the Cold War. She was Ben Bradlee’s sister-in-law. She lived next door in McLean to Jack (Luis Vega) and Jackie (Kathryn Tkel) Kennedy. Mary was becoming recognized as a real talent in the contemporary art scene.
The center of the play is her relationship with Kennedy. A longtime friend of the Kennedys, Mary is, in Lucas’s vision, pursued for decades by the skirt-chasing JFK, resisting his entreaties until after her divorce from Cord and Kennedy’s election. Their relationship reportedly involved greater emotional and intellectual intimacy than most of Kennedy’s dalliances. The play raises, but does not interrogate, the possibility that Mary’s participation in the affair was a considered effort on her part to use privileged access to influence policy.
In the performance, the tone of her relationship with Kennedy is portrayed as more maternal than passionate, with Vega’s Kennedy often seeming a lost boy needing comfort in Mary’s arms, perhaps becoming a subconscious surrogate for Mary’s own lost son, killed by a car some years earlier. An acquaintance of LSD guru Timothy Leary, Lucas’s Mary introduces Kennedy to the substance. In the play’s most preposterous scene, she takes Kennedy on an acid trip that somehow clinches his support for a civil rights bill.
A positive development in theater, at least since Hamilton, is that it’s no longer thought necessary to match actors with the look or ethnicity of historical characters. Lucas and Vega, probably wisely, make no attempt at an impersonation of the historical Kennedy’s appearance or style, but there is also little to connect the character with the charismatic public Kennedy. It is hard to imagine this Kennedy succeeding in electoral politics.
Lucas gives Abello the thankless job of playing a character written with a minimal character arc. She does so attractively and energetically but is compelled to be unremittingly smart, committed, and self-possessed, never failing to give peace a chance. In appearance and action, she is little different as a teenager than as a 40-year-old.
Cord readily sheds his initial postwar desire for world government, buying into the Manichean spirit of the Cold War for reasons he explains to Mary in a well-written first act monologue. Omura takes the popular picture of a tight-lipped intelligence operative to another level. Seldom has such a consistently clenched mouth been seen on local stages. Cord and his offstage colleagues Allen Dulles (long the CIA director) and James Jesus Angleton (head of counterintelligence, best known for his long, futile pursuit of a CIA mole who may not have existed) are the clear villains of the piece, manipulating the world from behind the scenes for the sake of their own power.
Two supporting characters provide the show’s best performances. Tkel’s Jackie is tough, cynical, and knowing, but ultimately compassionate. Regan Linton is superb as Cicely, Angleton’s wife. The most grounded character in the play, Cicely often seems the only adult in the room.
The technical production fared well. Catie Hevner’s varied projections onto the upstage panels of Wilson Chin’s set — a view of Georgetown in a snowstorm and an aqueous evocation of Kennedy’s LSD experience were especially nice — were effective. Titles establishing and identifying times and locales were helpfully projected onto a part of a trapezoidal structure hung over the stage. A notable feature of Cha See’s lighting design was low-set instruments projecting large shadows of the actors onto the set. Alejo Vietti’s costumes for Mary are beautifully constructed and flowing.
In the second act, Lucas plunges headlong into a wilderness of deep-state conspiracy theories, blaming the CIA in general — and the Cord Meyer, Dulles, and Angleton triumvirate in particular — for the Kennedy assassination, Oswald’s murder, Mary’s murder, keeping presidents in the dark about coups, and killings of numerous leaders and activists then and later.
The characters sometimes talk straight out to the audience, providing exposition from “the afterlife.” This can be a workable device, as Michael Frayn’s brilliant Copenhagen shows, but here contributes to the play’s sometimes cool detached feeling. A preachy group speech to the audience at the end of the show brings matters to an awkward conclusion.
Power Plays, writes Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith in her program note, aim at showing America “at its best and worst through historical characters and stories, but not necessarily as direct recreations of actual events.” That’s a worthy objective, but the earnest Change Agent makes a disappointing contribution to the series.
Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes, including one intermission.
Change Agent plays through March 6, 2022, in the Kogold Cradle at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th Street SW, Washington DC. Purchase tickets ($40–$95) online, by phone at 202-488-3300, or at the Sales Office at 1101 Sixth
Street SW, DC. The Sales Office is open Tuesday – Sunday, 12:00-8:00 p.m. for phone purchases and beginning 90 minutes prior to each performance until curtain for in-person purchases. For information on savings programs such as pay-your-age tickets, student discounts, Southwest Nights, and hero’s discounts, visit arenastage.org/tickets/savings-programs.
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