Don't Play It Again, Sam

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The Party Line, a new play by Sheryl Longin and Roger L. Simon, is a missed opportunity. Just published by Criterion Books, the play adumbrates the lives of journalists who excused away communist crimes in the mid-20th century, as well as their modern-day offspring.

The most famous of the characters is Walter Duranty, the New York Times reporter who covered up mass starvation in the Soviet Union under Stalin. In The Party Line, Duranty is not painted in broad strokes, but, like the other characters, in crayon. Konstantin Oumansky, the director of the Soviet Press Office, is right out of a 1960s James Bond movie, except with less dimension. Pim Fortuyn, a Dutch politician, is based on a real person, but it's hard to believe that the real Fortuyn, a gay man, was so incapable of having a single conversation without hitting on the person he was talking to. Katya, Duranty's Russian wife, doesn't say much. Which may be a good thing, because the dialogue in The Party Line falls flat on every page.

The play is in two acts and 17 scenes. In each brief scene, the lights come up, the characters all act in ways that are supposed to reveal their character, then the lights go down. Duranty is a boozer and a womanizer. The Russians are either starving peasants or bureaucrats. The women are barely there. I'm not a liberal and am well aware of the American left's appalling sympathies for communism (my documentary project proves this), but The Party Line never answers a crucial question: Why did these people become communists?

Playwrights Longin and Simon simply have them talking about the worker's state and the new paradise, but there is never any exposition on how they came to believe in the Soviet system. Letting even one of the characters explain their faith in communism would make their subsequent disillusionment or downfall that much more poignant.

The great espionage novelist Charles McCarry once read an unpublished novella I had written in college. He said he liked it, but that "you hate your antagonist too much." It's a bad idea to make the bad guy all bad, he said. Without any humanizing trait, the villain just becomes cardboard; even Heath Ledger's Joker had moments of humor and pathos. The Party Line cries out for a speech, and maybe more than one, about why Duranty became a communist. He suffered during the Great Depression. He had a loss in life that he never got over. Something.

This leads to what is perhaps The Party Line's greatest flaw: the misuse, or rather the lack of use, of Aleister Crowley. Crowley was an occultist, bisexual and heroin addict. When he was young, Duranty befriended Crowley and became a devotee. Crowley appears exactly twice in The Party Line, at the beginning and the end. His role is not even clear -- he just kind of appears, does some magic tricks, then forces Duranty to drink a potion made out of the organs of Duranty's late first wife. Yet Duranty is sarcastically dismissive of Crowley, which further defuses any potential power that Crowley's character may have had.

It's a failure that indicates that the playwrights did not think through what they were doing. Because there is a clear connection between the political depersonalization of communism and the sexual dehumanization of Crowley and his modern day descendants. Both treat people as if they are spare parts to be used, or pulverized if they resist. The Party Line does nothing to draw this out. In fact it completely ignores it.

One is left wondering why Crowley is even in the play at all. Or even why the play was written.

Mark Judge is a columnist for RealClearBooks and author, most recently, of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock 'n' Roll.

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