Upward migration seems a trope this season at Theatre Exile. Their current play and their next one both have “north” in the title (Jason Wells’ will be followed by Bruce Graham’s North of the Boulevard), and for this show, the company has temporarily relocated from their home theater in South Philadelphia to the Latvian Society in Northern Liberties.
Ah, but the “North” in the title of this play doesn’t refer to the direction — it’s for Oliver North, Reagan functionary and general loon. And, unfortunately, Wells’ play — a blunt, chaotic political satire short on wit and coherence — is a decidedly southward tumble from the usually excellent Theatre Exile folks, who in the past have shown remarkably fine taste in edgy material.
Wells’ point of departure here is REX 84, short for “Readiness Exercise 1984,” a policy project North developed for the Reagan administration in case of a national disaster. The plan allowed for martial law and massive abridgement of personal freedoms in the event that a president declared a state of national emergency. (Think a proto-Patriot Act, on a creepier, grander scale.) While it’s generally acknowledged that REX 84 was a historical reality, specifics about it are clouded in mystery, and it was never put into practice.
But in the near-future America of The North Plan, a national emergency has been declared, REX 84 is in effect — no, it doesn’t make any sense that an almost-40-year-old piece of abandoned theoretical policy is somehow now the law of the land, but trust me, it doesn’t pay to think about this too much — and for some reason, the epicenter of it all seems to be a small Ozark town (the mythical Lodus, Mo.).
Lodus’ jail houses two unlikely cellmates: Tanya Shepke, a trashy but likeable young woman, the town drunk and troublemaker; and Carlton Berg, a State Department bureaucrat gone rogue. Carlton has managed to steal a secret enemies list, but he’s going to need Tanya’s help to get it into the right hands.
Wells initially provides some funny moments, and a few insightful ones.
But even the broadest farce needs at least a germ of plausibility. From the start, the of lack of logic and thoroughness in The North Plan’s basic construction compromises its effectiveness, and everything unwinds. By the second act, we’re immersed in shrill comic free fall — Department of Justice employees behaving like Keystone Cops, an entirely preposterous series of mistaken identities and a conclusion that makes absolutely no sense.
Somewhere in here, Wells seems to have a clever idea — to marry the kind of paranoia-fueled, nail-biting tension of 24 or Homeland with a character comedy like My Name Is Earl. But the cleverness of his play is undone by its sloppiness.
Clichés abound in The North Plan, nowhere more so than in the portrayal of its heroine, Tanya. Here, actress Madi Distefano gives a bold, funny star turn, but no amount of comic éclat can leaven the character, a human traffic accident dogged by drink, divorce, custody battles — enough troubles to fuel a TLC reality show for several seasons. Worse, even as Wells posits Tanya as the potential solution for America’s deadly problem, he seems to faintly sneer at her (really, at most of his small-town characters) in a way that’s a reminder that America’s uneducated poor are really the last group of people society permits to be mocked with impunity.
Theatre Exile gives The North Plan a production that’s as good as it’s likely to get. In addition to Distefano, there are some fine supporting performances. Set designer Meghan Jones creates a vivid sheriff’s office, and Joe Canuso directs with style and energy — it’s not their fault that the small stage makes the intricacies of the second act seem even sillier than they need to be.
Through March 3, $10-$37, The Latvian Society, 531 Spring Garden St., 215-218-4022, .