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Be Afraid. In Fact, Be Very Afraid.

THEATER

Playwright Donald Freed digs into the scary underworld of politics, religion and freedom.

April 27, 1997|Daryl H. Miller | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

As the evening shadows deepen, Donald Freed tells a ghost story.

It's about a Panamanian strongman and overlord of drug trafficking--a man Americans tried to laugh off as Pineapple Face. But Manuel Noriega scared U.S. leaders badly enough for them to send troops after him. He was hunted down, then hauled to the States for trial and, ultimately, a jail term.

Well, some things can't be locked away in a cell, Freed cautions. His tone is dire, yet he looks content as can be, folded into a wingback chair and smoking a pipe in his Brentwood living room.

"Noriega lives on. He is going to come back yet to haunt this country. The truth about the Cold War--especially the Iran-Contra, Reagan-Bush years--is like a mole under the floorboards.

"All our Cold War monsters that we set up and then tore down--it's not so easy. It's not like a play; you can't just strike the set on Sunday night. Mr. Hussein. Mr. Noriega. Mr. Mobutu. Oh, no, there's an accounting coming. The Cold War may be over, but what is set in motion by that Cold War is a long way from over."

Freed, a playwright provocateur and social historian, writes about all of this in "The General & the Archbishop," which begins previews Thursday at the Victory Theatre in Burbank. The play imagines what took place inside the Vatican embassy in Panama City when Noriega sought sanctuary there on Christmas Eve 1989. As American troops blast taunts over a PA system in a crude attempt to flush out Noriega, the archbishop tells him, in essence: "We look for bright boys like you on the make, and we set you up to do our dirty work. And now, it's time to tear you down."

What kind of dirty work? "We called it anti-communism," Freed says. "In fact, it was nothing but a lust for power." He promises that by play's end audiences will "be led into sanity and clarity by none other than the mad dictator Manuel Noriega."

The faintest trace of a smile forms at the corners of his mouth. Then a laugh erupts as he adds: "That ought to discourage a few ticket-buyers."

Freed writes things that push people's buttons, the best-known of which is the Richard Nixon mock confessional "Secret Honor." But mostly, this affable 65-year-old is just trying to get people thinking--to get them asking questions about everything from the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial to CIA activity in Central America.

"That part of life we call politics has been censored and abstracted out of American theater" since the Communist witch hunts of the '50s, he says. "The fact that I'm putting it back in, then, strikes some people as politics-as-propaganda."

He is fond of mentioning, with what seems like pride, that the FBI and CIA tracked him after a couple of his projects. "I never had any doubt that playwriting is taken very seriously in this country by certain elements," he says.

He also writes investigative history books, such as the recent "Killing Time," in which he and scientist Raymond P. Briggs chart the evidence of the Nicole Brown Simpson-Ronald Goldman murders against a timeline. An earlier book, "Executive Action" (written with Mark Lane), became a 1973 movie that--two decades before Oliver Stone's "JFK"--suggested the Warren Report didn't tell the whole story about the Kennedy assassination.

"Oliver Stone is doing in film what I am doing in theater; we're breaking some of the same taboos," Freed says.

Stone has paid a high price for it, Freed acknowledges. Since "JFK," the filmmaker has become "a guaranteed late-night gag."

Freed bristles at the thought that some of his own ideas might be dismissed as conspiracy theories. "I say that 'conspiracy' is the cheapest word in the American lexicon," he intones. "When someone frightens us, we call [it] conspiracy, and when we approve of an activity, we call it solidarity."

In a deep, rumbling voice, Freed spins out mini-lectures that go on for a quarter-hour and more, almost as if he were in front of one of his playwriting classes at USC or dramatic literature classes at Loyola Marymount University.

Friend and fan Julie Harris, who has acted in two of his plays, says: "He lives in his mind so much--more so than most other people. . . . If you had the strength to sit up all night listening, he could keep on talking, I think."

Maria Gobetti, who is directing "The General & the Archbishop," adds: "His passion for freedom and his passion for theater are two running streams. . . . He's doing something very dangerous in his work, which is mixing art and politics. He really believes that art can make a difference in the way people think about their government and their religion."

That's a topic that really gets Freed talking.

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