By Scotty Bennett
George Kaplan is a beautifully realized drama with comedic elements by Frédéric Sonntag, translated into North American English by Samuel Buggeln. The viewer will laugh but will also be brought to gently encounter deeper and possibly disturbing questions about our political and cultural perceptions. Questions such as What is the nature of a surveillance culture? How do fiction and disinformation relate to the perception of reality? Does myth lead to conspiracy theories? Who is manipulating us, and for what purpose? Does any of it matter in the whole scheme of things?
George Kaplan is the name of a non-existent man used by Alfred Hitchcock in his film North by Northwest. Cary Grant played the character mistaken for George Kaplan. Sonntag uses the reference to establish how people’s political and cultural perceptions may be defined and manipulated by the stories being told in various forms of visual media, from movies to television, to video games.
The play unfolds over three acts that, on their face, do not seem connected, but each has the same basic structure and explores a different aspect surrounding the manipulation of the notion of truth. Three groups of individuals (an anarchic radical fringe, wildly creative storytellers and coldly calculating managers) are all on the edge of dysfunction, each speaking of various ways of manipulating people’s perceptions as a means of control.
The Bridge Production Group cast, under the direction of Max Hunter, expertly conveys the chaos of ideas that often occurs when a group of passionate people have their ideas about how to proceed with a particular action. Christina Toth, Max Samuels, Elisha Lawson, Campbell Symes and Michael DeFilippis are a superb ensemble, each playing a different character in the three acts. They bring out the diverse sensibilities of the characters, fully realized, in the radically different settings of each act. Their presentations are accurate to how these three groups are often perceived. The characters range from hyperactive, blasé, detached, confused, and scared in the first act to narcissistic, anxious, indifferent, depressed, and angry in the second to cold, calculating, and morally bankrupt in the third.
The first act is set in a nondescript, messy room where five masked people stare into a video camera. Each, in turn, reads from a manuscript, a manifesto, talking about the depersonalization of society. Ultimately, the reading breaks down into dysfunctional squabbling about the nature of what they are doing. They are called the George Kaplan Group.
The second act is a boardroom with a group of writers looking for a storyline for a television series or possibly a movie. The mysterious client financing the work has the room wired with microphones and video cameras. The one thing that the client insists on is that a character named George Kaplan be part of the story. What transpires is a more organized dysfunction than occurred in the first act. The writers are throwing ideas around, including some things used in the first act, and some are plot lines from the film North by Northwest, in which the name George Kaplan is a central character. The meeting ends badly when one of the scenarios offered is acted out.
The third act takes place in a modern, sterile, windowless room. A whiteboard screen is on the back wall with a projection of a man in a hotel room with a bag over his head. The characters enter and begin to discuss things that are of great importance to the state of the nation and the world. They are trying to understand why the name George Kaplan is connected to developing events. The impression is that these people are the manipulators of the social and political order, the deep state. Their conversation mirrors ideas and structures from the previous two acts.
The play has come full circle with the paranoid mythic ideas of the George Kaplan Group being played out by the screenwriters and now being seriously discussed as actual operations by a group of governmental operatives.
Thomas Jenkeleit’s set design is supported well by Conor Mulligan’s lighting and Andrew Freeburg’s sound and media design. The stage has three large lighted frames giving the impression of different locations as each frame is set further upstage. Each change of act moves the action to the next frame. It’s as if the audience is watching a television or movie screen, which are elements in each act. Avery Reed’s costumes add clarity to the personalities of the various characters.
George Kaplan. (through December 3, 2022)
The Bridge Production Group
The New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit https://ci.ovationtix.com/34708/production/1141015
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission.