Beginning the day after Salvador Allende was elected as the first Marxist president of a liberal democracy in Latin America, longtime anti-Communist U.S. President Richard Nixon and his power-hungry Secretary of State Henry Kissinger plotted to overthrow his government. It took a military coup in September, 1973 before that happened. His death, ruled a suicide at the time, was the subject of rumors for decades, some insisting on involvement of Nixon and his CIA agents. After his body was exhumed and autopsied by an international team of experts in 2011, the Chilean courts confirmed Allende died at his own hands, probably with an AK-47 that was a gift from fellow Latin Marxist Fidel Castro. Those are the facts, Maam, but rumors are so much more fun.
In his World Premiere play, Our Man In Santiago at Theatre West, playwright Mark Wilding has written a fanciful comedy of what might have been. While testifying before a fact-finding Senate Committee (voiced with Southern delicacy by Michael Van Duzer), CIA spook Daniel Baker (Nick McDow Musleh) purports to tell the true story, the short version. Baker was basically a newbie agent when he was sent to Santiago, Chile in 1973. He had spent his first three years on station in New Zealand, mostly protecting the various native bird populations from endangerment from feral cats. Due to bureaucratic misunderstandings, he has been chosen to be the CIA’s man who will finally rid Nixon and Chile of its duly elected president. But Baker, evidently handling his first firearm, drops the bullets into a candy dish to start his assignment. His handler, station chief Jack Wilson (George Tovar), is a gruff veteran with eyes on promotion. He informs Baker his job is to get Allende out of the presidential palace, located across the street from their hotel, by any means necessary, meaning dead or alive. Time is of the essence since the military is planning to bomb the palace momentarily.
Musleh makes for an earnest if bungling not-so-secret agent, a nerd with a license to kill. His sincere black and white outlook on life and politics marks him as an easy mark to scam. Tovar is all duplicitous scheming and no-nonsense orders. Not that comedy relief is really needed in a comedy, yet Presciliana Esparolini delivers the goods as the Chilean maid who always finds a reason to be in this one particular hotel room on this very important day. Hint: it’s not just to clean the bano. She can be very sensitive and motherly to Daniel at one moment and an authoritarian figure the next, all with perfect comic timing. Perfect timing is what the dynamic duo of Steve Nevil and Michael Van Duzer have plenty of. Their two scenes as the posturing President Nixon and his controlling Secretary Kissinger are the show’s brilliant highlights. These two deserve a show of their own. They look and sound so like their real life counterparts, they could be reincarnations, heaven forfend. And just who did win the Pepsi Challenge?
Wilding has written a comic play about a serious matter, giving his audience plenty to laugh about but also something to think about. The play runs about 100 minutes with no intermission but could be trimmed another ten minutes since it begins to drag near the finish line. Charlie Mount has directed with a strong hand as the action and laughs never really slack off. He also contributed the great sound design, complete with jet flyovers and bombs exploding. Jeff G. Rack designed the spacious hotel room as well as the White House seat of power.