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Two plays rap conservatives, but only one gets it right

WELLFLEET -- Brendan Behan once compared critics to eunuchs at a harem. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the left has been relegated to pretty much the same role, looking on powerlessly as the right controls the political dialogue.

What's a poor rad-lib to do but throw up one's hands?

Or write a play.

So we find ourselves on tranquil Cape Cod with not one but two political plays railing against the powers and mind-sets that be in 2005. Two plays, moreover, with quite a political pedigree: ''Public Exposure" by Robert Reich, labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, receiving its world premiere in Wellfleet, and ''Crazy Eyes" by John Buffalo Mailer, son of Norman Mailer, brilliant chronicler of America's misguided mores, in Provincetown.

Neither is going to make anyone forget Tony Kushner or David Hare as playwrights who can mine political territory without compromising artistic vision. But a more practical question might be: Do they have the power to change minds or energize the faithful? And even if they're preaching to the converted, how good is the sermon?

Both writers, in their own way, are examining that place where American machismo and conservative politics intersect. While Mailer has more experience in theater, Reich is the better preacher, though his hourlong play is pretty much a one-trick pony, particularly after the premise is laid bare.

In ''Crazy Eyes," set a month after 9/11, a Wall Street guy's guy who's seen too many Bruce Willis movies abducts a Palestinian-American and murders another Arab because he thinks they have some anthrax. He ties the survivor up in a closet in the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his ineffectual actor roommate, Jack.

''Public Exposure" is about a bullying, egomaniacal TV talk-show host seemingly modeled on Bill O'Reilly who is so in love with himself that he thinks he has a shot at becoming president after a conservative pundit he once had an affair with convinces him he should run.

One of the big advantages Reich has over Mailer is that his play deals with contemporary events. We'll be facing the aftereffects of Sept. 11 for the rest of our lives, but ''Crazy Eyes" feels stale. It isn't that the arrogant moral certainty of Will Wright, the Wall Street warrior, has disappeared. But the rawness of the rage directed against Arab-Americans has dissipated, which leaves Wright seeming like nothing more than your garden-variety paranoid schizophrenic with a gun.

You could see Wright's imprisonment of the Palestinian-American as symbolic of America's broader mistreatment of Arab detainees. These characters, though, aren't strong enough to be metaphors; their language is too specific to the situation. The actors give it their all, particularly PJ Sosko as Wright and Gian-Murray Gianino as the Palestinian-American. The production is also fully professional, particularly the naturalistic set design of Scott White.

But, at best, Mailer has a one-act play here. The laziness with which he has the gun change hands on two occasions and his reliance on car accidents for back story make you wish his father had taken him out to the writing woodshed.

Reich at least knows he has only enough material for a one-act. And despite the plot's zaniness and exaggerations, the world he writes about is all too real: one in which O'Reilly and right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh are exposed as hypocrites yet continue to thrive. The sexual-harassment lawsuit against O'Reilly (settled out of court) and Limbaugh's admission that he was addicted to painkillers seem to be the backdrop for Reich's tale, in which the host of an ''O'Reilly Factor"-like show has a pathology he's afraid will become known when he runs for president.

It does, but the public just thinks it's part of his no-nonsense candor. Add in Reich's willingness to be a little outrageous and some digs at incivility in the public discourse, servility in the media, and a preference for appearance over substance, and you have an extended ''Saturday Night Live" skit.

What raises it above that level is the excellent production, directed zestfully by Gip Hoppe -- no stranger himself to political theater with a touch of the absurd. The cast, particularly the four principals, is terrific. It's a delight to watch Robert Kropf's eyes expand whenever the talk-show host sees a chance to feather his nest. Stacy Fischer, as the conservatrix, appealingly expands her resume from waif to seductress. Michael Dorval plays the plastic surgeon who knows everything with the same gusto he brought to Hoppe's ''A New War." And Laura Latreille (''The Shape of Things") as the plastic surgeon's before-and-after success story continues to bring a spark to just about every production she's in.

You sense that Reich has benefited quite a bit from Hoppe's collaboration, though his plotting isn't as adept as Hoppe's. Reich probably had a better shot at changing the world as a labor secretary or gubernatorial candidate. This play won't put so much as a dent in O'Reilly's ratings.

But if you can't beat 'em, you might as well have a laugh at their expense.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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