Sunday, 17 July 2016

Review The Trial Of Jane Fonda

The Trial of Jane Fonda
by Terry Jastrow

Miss Fonda Regrets

There are moments in history when we folks outside America maybe underestimate the will of the American people, whatever their hue and politics to bind together when their country is attacked. Yet the popular view is the conflict in Vietnam was lost on the home front when press and public turned against the US military campaign.

This stylish but somewhat stactic production directed by Joe Harmston and designed by Sean Cavanagh, deals with a true story, one legacy of Vietnam which may seem almost trivial to us compared to the many issues thrown up by American military intervention, sending in ordinary Joes and Janes as the "world's policemen" (and policewomen).

Yet it reflects a febrile  atmosphere, a cross over of media and military, sincerity and playacting, politics and frankness all uneasily contained and threatening to explode and splinter, focussed on one woman. 

The Trial of Jane Fonda, written by Terry Jastrow, takes place in 1988

It imagines what occurred during a real-life private meeting organised by an Episcopalian minister between middle-aged movie star, Jane Fonda, a political peace activist in her younger days who now expresses regret for some of her actions and male Vietnam military veterans in Waterbury, Connecticut.

The men were trying to have the town boycott the filming of her latest movie (one minute 15 seconds in) which co-starred Robert De Niro, viewing her as "Hanoi Jane", a traitor to the soldiers who fought on the orders of their country in the former French colony of Vietnam.

Fourteen years earlier, during her Paris marriage to film director Roger Vadim, invited to visit Hanoi by the North Vietnamese, she had been filmed and photographed astride an anti-aircraft gun used against American planes and had made a controversial broadcast.

This is a strange play. The vets are boiled down to five types: The public servant lawyer Larry Bonk (Alex Gaumond), the Ohio bond trader Buzzy Banks (Christien Anholt), Tommy Lee Cook (Mark Rose), the guy "between jobs" with a gift for crude caricature, injured by a grenade Reggie Wells (Ako Mitchell) and the Italian-American father of a dead soldier, Tony Celano II (Paul Herzberg).

All the elements are there for a stonking drama, even if dealing with living people, a certain amount of discipline obviously has to be exercised. But this sort of parameter can lead to an even more dramatically interesting examination. The intelligence is there but it is weirdly flat-lined in the script of this one act play with the flare ups between the men, the easier to grasp action, oddly isolated and ritualized.

For it eould be a fascinating and all-too-human situation, if it were amplified. Indeed, despite the black and white videos and the still projections of Jane Fonda who, in her words in the play "wanted to be taken seriously" plus audio recordings, this feels like a play without a context. 

As far as we can garner from the internet, the working class municipality of Waterbury, the main business of which was making bullet casings,  had welcomed the job creation and other economic potential of filmmakers coming to town. Yet noone with any ounce of the civility and respect due to those who had made a career, as well as those who were conscripted, in the military could disregard a letter to a local newspaper from an army veteran.

While the analogy with Twelve Angry Men, the iconic movie starring Fonda's part Italian Episcopalian turned agnostic father, seeems clunky, it is somehow psychological appropriate to the situation. When past hostilities reignite and the demure, almost matronly, Fonda (played by Fatal Attraction's Anne Archer)  is accused of using quotes rather speaking her mind, her rebuke does somehow work, "I'm an actress, that's what I do".    

The images are potent, from luscious Barbarella to helmeted peace activist and then the prim Jane of the meeting, having reinvented herself as fitness guru and with a more conservative look in keeping with the general swing of the US towards a more conservative stance

But she is always a woman encircled  by men. Whether in Vietnam or in the church hall meeting arranged by the minister John (Martin Fisher) who nervously takes nips of Scotch and at one point removes his dog collar, as if it were a prop, and thrown it challengingly into the centre of the room

The word "Trial" itself in the title may give a clue. The obvious parallel is the celebrated courtroom drama Yet trial can also mean an audition, a test for selection into the team, however unstable the selection process.

OK, we're going round the houses on this, mainly because this feels like an extract of something else. In between the distribution of points of view and violent prejudices, thrre are revelations but more documentary information than drama. 

And having done a little research on Google, we also wonder whether this is a show which would mean more to Americans who understand that with every Middle East conflict with American troops involved, Fonda, as a woman still in the public eye, becomes once again a target. Some would say for displaced anger and frustration tinged by misogyny.  

It's a play that's made us think hard and, in a world where inaccurate content on social media can destroy a person without reaching the light of day in the mainstream press, we have striven to be accurate. 

Nevertheless it needs more context as a play for British audiences even if there are intriguing glimpses of a difficult story which is well-worth dramatizing. An amber light from a sober TLT and her equally thoughtful vehicle.   

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