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Politics, as the saying goes, makes for strange bedfellows. In the case of “Veronica’s Position,” the season-closing production for Milwaukee’s In Tandem Theatre Co., the phrase is explored literally as well as figuratively, often with hilarious results.
Playwright Rich Orloff ’s award-winning comedy takes place in Washington, D.C., in early 1990. Veronica (Tiffany Vance) is a fading film star and the new fiancé of Harvey (Steve Koehler), a U.S. senator. Veronica is trying to revive her career by appearing in a stage production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” with her former husband Philip (out actor Richard Ganoung), an actor she has twice married and twice divorced.
Alan (T. Stacy Hicks), Veronica’s gay assistant, reunites with Zeke (Joe Fransee), an old friend and controversial photographer whose provocative work will soon be exhibited in D.C. with the assistance of public funding. The senator objects to the photographer’s work and introduces a bill to curtail public funding to the arts to prevent the exhibit.
The senator further questions the validity of the budding romantic relationship between Alan and Zeke. The otherwise apolitical Veronica finds herself caught in the middle of this unusual situation and is forced to, well, take a position.
For those who need the dots connected, the play was inspired by actors Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, U.S. Sen. John Warner and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
“About 30 years ago Taylor and Burton, already twice married and divorced, did reunite to create a disastrous Broadway production of Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives,’ ” says the Manhattan- based Orloff. “I met someone who worked on the production and thought, ‘This sounds like a play.’ ”
It wasn’t until two years later, when Orloff introduced the Mapplethorpe-inspired character, that he found himself with a viable scenario, he says. The result is a well-balanced, accomplished comedy that appeals at a variety of levels, says In Tandem managing director Jane Flieller.
“I like ‘Veronica’s Position’ because it couples Rich’s wonderful sense of humor with hot-button topics like public arts funding and gay marriage,” says Flieller, who is directing the production. “It’s incredibly well-balanced writing that allows you to understand the issues well enough to take a position.”
Orloff ’s balance comes from a great deal of research into the lives of the people who inspired his characters. He read numerous biographies and visited what is now the Paley Center for Media to watch film clips, particularly of Taylor and Warner. Despite the fictional scenario, a few elements of truth slip in.
“In the play, there is an engagement ring with red, white and blue gems,” Orloff says. “It sounds like a joke I made up, but it’s like the actual engagement ring Warner gave Taylor.”
The deeper social issues are balanced by the humor. Despite the fact that comedies are often more dependent on audience response, directing a comedy is no more difficult than directing a drama, Flieller says.
“It’s no more or less dif- ficult to bake a cake than to bake a pie, if you bake well,” she says. “As a director, I prefer comedies. They tend to be faster-paced and I like to work quickly.”
If there is a driving sentiment, one that leads Veronica to her “position,” it is love, Flieller explains. In fact, it is the only subject in which the film star in any way engages.
“She is a great romantic who says, ‘I don’t question love the way most people do. To me, it is the best reason to be alive, and it should be welcomed whenever it happens.’