Sex in the State Department


A farce about the State Department in contemporary times could be just what we need, but James Armstrong's Foggy Bottom only partially hits the spot. The acting is quite fine, and the direction by Rob Urbinati keeps it all moving at a lively pace. The premise is promising: a mid-level employee pretends to be his boss, Pat Simon, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, in order to seduce immigrant women with the promise of green cards. Dan Cordle plays Dick, the lusty bureaucrat, staying after-hours so that he can lure sexy exotic women (all with one accent or another) into the empty office of his boss.

Act one is basically a series of sexual gags, some humorous, but most rather tasteless, involving women coming and going, drinking, stripping, and hiding in closets when others show up, All three of his chosen prey arrive wearing sexy underwear, suggesting that they come to the office prepared for erotic action to earn the elusive green card. Immigration issues are certainly a hot topic today, but the way they are dealt with here is about as subtle as Three’s Company was in the area of sex and gender roles. These women are entirely too eager to satisfy the masquerading seducer. As the Chinese Lee says, "I want to pleasure you," and shortly thereafter she mounts him on the desk. When the Nigerian Sadiku (played by Angela Polite) describes her sister's rape and murder, it is somehow in the context of another joke.

All the characters are lightweight, and the play is clearly a farce, but, nonetheless, to treat the real suffering of those seeking political asylum as grist for the sexy games mill can feel cheap. Some genuinely funny moments occur, particularly provided by the wildly outgoing Juanita (played by the engaging Susanna Guzman), with her big personality and willingness to perform any and all sexual favors. She serves as the outrageous counterpart to uptight Bill (nicely realized by Jeremy Beiler), another underpaid Foggy Bottom bureaucrat, with his serious glasses and bow tie. He is consistently shocked by Dick's sexual behavior. When Bill attempts to chastise Dick's misuse of the boss's office by proclaiming, "This is the State Department," Dick counters, "We are all meaningless hacks." 

Bill won't let go of his idealism right away, claiming, "We used to all of us do the right thing." Apparently these two guys in nice staid suits and shirts and ties represent the United States today, the demoralized inhabitants of a misused State Department in the age of the military mission (as opposed to diplomacy).

Armstrong puts self-denigrating words into Dick's mouth: "We don't do any work here. . . . Nothing we do here matters," concluding, "we should have worked for the Pentagon."

In light of his recognition of total powerlessness, Dick apparently feels justified in adopting an amoral "let's have fun" attitude.

The play twists in a more dangerous direction midway through the action when a couple of disaffected Uzbekistani terrorists show up, making for a more exciting and surprising second act. The female terrorist, Marina, states the obvious, "You are weak because you do not believe in anything. . . but we believe." 

Of course the terrorists are figures of fun too, exaggerated, high-strung, eager to do damage, and none too competent. The male terrorist, Muhammad, is soon seduced by the sensual women hiding in the various closets, remarking that he knew the West was decadent, but he didn't realize it was going to be this good.

As the talk turns to massacres and terror, the play's tone changes, leading up to a table-turning denouement that is clearly the working out of a political parable. Armstrong doesn't quite trust his audience to get it, so sometimes the political symbolism is overly spelled out.

Ultimately Foggy Bottom is all about betrayals of trust: at work, in the world, and in private life. It is all about lies. As Bill says, when he starts to realize just how far afield he and Dick have wandered in their misuse of power: "We are so fucked." Then he turns on Dick, declaring, "All I did was go along with what you said and try not to cause trouble." 

Isn't this the classic excuse of reluctant collaborators everywhere? Or of quiet Americans?

Structurally, there are two different plays here wound up into one night of theatre: a lightweight sexual farce with scantily dressed ladies hiding in various closets, and a harsh indictment of the Bush administration.

The Abingdon Theatre Company's mission is to "support the development of new American plays," and this play shows the potential for James Armstrong's writing if he would delve a little more deeply than television situation comedy and worry less about his audience getting the message. Perhaps, after all, satire is more appropriate to the present moment in history than farce. Goofy sexual exploitation hardly seems a worthy metaphor for our post-9/11 world.  

Foggy Bottom plays at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex at 312 West 36th Street through September 24th.