IRVINE — The most famous line to emerge from the Watergate hearings was: "What did the President know, and when did he know it?"
In "Mastergate: A Play on Words," Larry Gelbart's scathing lampoon of the Iran-Contra scandal, it becomes: "What did the President know, and does he have any idea that he knew it?"
The satirical gulf between those lines is not only funny but also a measure of the perceived difference between the Machiavellian plotting of a Richard M. Nixon and the Panglossian bumbling of a Ronald Reagan.
Further, it represents the modus operandi of a sendup in which Gelbart, who helped create the TV series "MASH," takes his "MASH" sensibility to a Capitol Hill hearing room and savages all sorts of dimwitted political creatures. They have no less trouble crippling the language with a fusillade of imbecilic euphemisms and dopey evasions than they do corrupting Washington.
As staged by Dudley Knight at UC Irvine, moreover, the Southland premiere of "Mastergate" is more than just a revival of a 1989 comedy taking us down memory lane. It is a spectacular theatrical happening, a vibrant farce that revels in pop reality.
The production buzzes with excitement from the moment you cross the threshold of the metal detectors flanking Jeffrey Hall's all-encompassing set. You take your seat on the stage amid scores of players in the hearing room itself, which is dominated by half a dozen TV monitors as well as a huge early-American painting of George Washington and the Founding Fathers. And you feel as if you're part of the show, a witness to some hilariously absurd history that sounds ridiculous but very much like the truth.
Various governmental operatives testify about being "non-participants" in "non-meetings" and "non-discussions" involving Mastergate Pictures Inc., a Hollywood studio allegedly used to launder money for covert military aid to right-wing guerrillas in Central America through the making of a big-budget action film called "Tet: The Movie."
Maj. Manley Battle, "America's only four-star major," concedes the movie's budget mushroomed from $40 million to $1.3 billion "with the catering." But nobody was the wiser, he claims. Even the President didn't know anything about the covert operation. Just how does Manley know that? Because "I was told the President didn't know." And who told Manley, who has so many medals that his lawyer is wearing some of them? "The same people who told (the President) that he didn't know."
As for Secretary of State Bishop, he testifies: "Since everyone knew I was against the plan, I assumed everyone would know that I was against whatever it was I was doing." When asked how he could hope to persuade anyone that he was opposed to something he was busy supporting, he replies: "By resigning as often as I could--without actually damaging my effectiveness on the job."
Nobody is exempt from Gelbart's ridicule. Certainly not the media. Covering Mastergate for TNN, the vacuous magpie Merry Chase remarks that, given the expected length of the hearings, "the Joint Committee can probably use all the excessiveness at its command." The gavel-to-gavel malapropisms are unrelenting.
Best of all, under Knight's adroit visual staging, the performances of the entire amateur cast come across as crisp, funny and vivid--far better, it turns out, than the recent public-radio reading of "Mastergate" on Santa Monica's KCRW-FM, which Knight also directed with professionals from L.A. Theater Works.
Larry Biederman: Sen. Bowman
Thomas Redding: Rep. Proctor / Sen. Bunting
Paul Tifford, Jr.: Shepherd Hunter
Kelly Perine: Sen. Byers
Kirsten Daurelio: Rep. Sellers
Robert Kushell: Sen. Knight / Steward Butler
Joel Forsythe: Abel Lamb / Vice President Burden
Alan Schack: Secretary of State Bishop
Gregory K. Krosnes: Maj. Manley Battle
Robert Hickok: Wylie Slaughter
Jon Sidoli: Mr. Child / Mr. Picker / Mr. Boyle / Mr. Carver
Hope Chernov: Mrs. Butler / Mrs. Lamb / Mrs. Battle / Mrs. Burden / Mrs. Slaughter
Maura Vincent: Merry Chase
Michael Mufson: Clay Fielder
Thya Hartshorn: TNN Director
Maryan Burke: Candi Bunting
Craig Scott: Lance Bunting
A UC Irvine presentation of the play by Larry Gelbart. Directed by Dudley Knight. Scenic design by Jeffrey Hall. Costumes by Melissa Merz. Lighting by Doreen Tighe. Video design by Donald Bradburn. Stage manager: Thyra Hartshorn. Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission). At the Fine Arts Village Theatre on the UCI campus (Bridge and Mesa roads), Irvine. Continues today at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. $6 to $14. (714) 856-6616 or (714) 856-5000.