Be it as playwright or director, when Aaron Posner is at the helm, the synapses prepare for a certain kind of firing: there will be wit, intelligence, and a brand of subversive warmth even a cynic can love. Unfortunately, in JQA (★★), Posner, both writing and directing, delivers no such sparks, and one can only wonder why. Is the auteur simply too upset with America to think straight?
Consisting of a series of vignettes tracking John Quincy Adams from the late 1700s through the mid-1800s, Posner covers a smattering of seminal events, influences, and moments (real and imagined) in the sixth president’s personal and political life. There are key discussions, pivotal monologues, and occasionally some humor. But if this life might be interesting, the political conversations around governance and slavery relevant, and the chronic marginalization of intelligent women worthy of a knowing nod, nothing here gets much past potted political and historical lessons and pained expressions.
One of the problems is the delivery system. There may be an intriguing struggle for optimism at the heart of the effort, but it’s buried under too much stilted expository, speechifying, and the kind of mindless patriotism that makes the sentient feel like weeping with despair. When will Americans get over having to constantly claim that this is the greatest country on earth? Surely, at this point, we’ve graduated to a bit of realism? And while we’re at it, why are iconic American figures always depicted like talking statutes in a historical theme park? Surely they hemmed and hawed, stumbled over words and ideas, and grunted and burped mid-sentence just like the rest of us.
Such matters aren’t helped by the execution. In bringing his vignettes to life, Posner has his four actors trade off playing JQA and a few other relevant characters. If there is something in seeing him played through different races and genders, it isn’t edginess. And without a much stronger sense of his personality and more directorial control, little continuity survives the transitions. Also insurmountable, at least for two of the four actors, is Posner’s expository-laden language and pontifications.
The most challenged here is Phyllis Kay, whose JQA and George Washington are delivered in the kind of teacherly tones that make one want to scratch graffiti into the desk. As Adams’ elderly mother Abigail, she begins to approach convincing, but does little more than channel the hard-bitten Boomer boss we’ve all seen and heard enough of. Also letting down the side is a highly-charismatic Jacqueline Correa who fails to convince anywhere except as Adam’s wife Louisa. Kay and Correa’s scene as Adams and Lincoln so deflates Posner’s wit, it gives one the distinct feeling that the play would be better read than performed.
Doing more with the tall order is Joshua David Robinson, who brings an invested touch of character and nuance to his portrayals. But praise must go to Eric Hissom for his John Adam senior, and the fabulously awful political rival Henry Clay, each given as much life and humor as the play allows. In truth, both Robinson and Hissom seem primed for the political play Posner may yet still write.
JQA runs through April 14 in Arena’s Kogod Cradle, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $67 to $115. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.