All eyes are on the U.S. president. Not the current one, but Warren G. Harding, POTUS No. 29. The Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard takes us back to the summer of 1920 with its production of Colin Speer Crowley’s Fifteen Men in a Smoke-Filled Room, onstage through Sept. 30.
The title references the backroom dealings that made Harding the Republican nominee for president. The play is set in a Chicago hotel room during the Republican National Convention as Harding’s nomination hangs in the balance. Actually, it rests in the hands of 15 powerful men — titans of industry and political bigwigs — who make the deals that make the presidency. Thanks to the shrewd machinations of Harding’s campaign manager, Harry M. Daugherty (played with a commanding presence by Bill Walthall), and the help of tycoon George Harvey (an understated yet effective Sean Mason), Harding clinches it, but he doesn’t seem especially pleased about it.
Harding (an endearing Scott Blanchard) doesn’t really want the nomination, but Daugherty won’t take no for an answer. In a clever use of voice-overs echoing radio broadcasts of the era, Harding’s future is foretold. (Allan D. Noel is the authentic-sounding broadcaster.) Another piece of fortunetelling comes from Harding’s wife (the wonderful Jill Dolan), who says a clairvoyant has warned her that Harding will suffer an early demise if he becomes president. Mrs. Harding, who confesses that her husband is all she has in the world, wants him to shun the White House and go back home to Ohio. He, on the other hand, does have someone else: his mistress, Nan Britton (the charming Reign Lewis), who sneaks into his hotel room for a good time and some hooch. (It is Prohibition, after all.)
Crowley weaves a lot of history into a play that feels very relevant. What resonate most, however, are the human stories playing out in real time onstage. A man grappling between his desires and the inextricable pull of fate. An intelligent wife turning a blind eye to her husband’s infidelity while doing all she can to save him. A young woman negotiating the realities of an unfair world. An opportunist fighting for his candidate — or is he fighting for himself?
We don’t need to see the 15 men to feel their presence, but it is the conversations between two people that carry the most weight in the play. The scene between Daugherty and Mrs. Harding is especially hard-hitting. After a snooty waiter (the humorous Eric McGowan) seats them at a table, Mrs. Harding reveals that she’s on to Daugherty’s games and she’s not afraid to speak her mind. Perhaps it is historically accurate that she ultimately softens, but it would make for interesting drama to watch Mrs. Harding steel her resolve, and it would be great fun to watch Dolan have that moment.
Angela DeCicco directs with a level hand. The crew — including stage managers Stephanie Rice and April Chibnik, lighting designer Tyson Sauthoff, master carpenter Bob Decker, sound designer and engineer Allan D. Noel, prop mistresses and set dressers L.J. Stevens and Stephanie Rice and costumer Lorna Bowen — together recreates a time and place with fine detail.
We may know how Harding’s story ends, but it’s worth a trip back in time behind closed doors to imagine how fate might have cast the final vote.
Fifteen Men in a Smoke-Filled Room through Sept. 30 at Elite Theatre Company, 2731 S. Victoria Ave., Oxnard. For tickets and more information, call 805-483-5118 or visit www.elitetheatre.org.