In a programme note, writer Brian Stewart avers that the eponymous CIA plot in – and of – his play is ‘stranger than fiction’. The first performance off-Broadway took place on 6 September 2001 and the immediate aftershock of 9/11 lent it an eerie and unexpected resonance. In these days of apparently phantom weapons of mass destruction, it has a whole new set of resonances and does not perhaps seem so strange.
The year is 1960 and the premise is that a team of four hand–picked CIA operatives form a mini think tank of murderous thoughts. Locked in a room together, they’re to brainstorm until they come up with a plausible plan to eliminate Fidel Castro, who is conveniently flying to New York to address the UN.
In designer Kenneth Mellor’s suitably claustrophobic evocation of a high tech sixties meeting room, they go through every detail known about their target and come up with ever wilder schemes to make assassination look like accident, illness - or someone else’s fault.
At first there’s a lot of fun to get out of these darkly comic scenarios. Bright ideas include poison administered through the man’s shoes – as long as he leaves them outside his hotel room to be cleaned; or failing that, in complimentary socks left with the shampoo and shower cap inside. And in the light of the alleged poisoning of Ukraine’s President Yushenko, their ideas don’t seem so far-fetched…
Stewart certainly wrings maximum comedy out of the situation, casting wicked aspersions on the operative’s competence - and by implication, the CIA’s – as they struggle with the complexities of their overhead projector and its wiring.
Then there’s the deftly-drawn power balance between the four, with age, experience and old boy networks counting for everything – at least for those who have age and experience on their side. But when all these permutations have been explored, the play begins to run out of steam. The irony of Castro’s survival is not lost, but does rather take the suspense out of the situation.
That said, director David Giles’ well-paced production boasts a quartet of finely-judged performances, from actors whose rapport is a pleasure to watch. Under the avuncular eye of Edward Hardwicke’s magisterial ‘chair of proceedings’, Clive Mantle’s good ol’ boy redneck and Joe Shaw’s eager rookie spar convincingly and Michael Praed’s smooth career assassin makes murder into an everyday banality.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford)