Three in the Back, Two in the Head

InterAct Theatre Company, 2030 Sansom St., through Feb. 9, 893-1145.

While its dramatic logic moves us inexorably toward wanting to know the truth, the play's true interest resides in the complexity of its lies.
"What did he do?'' Paul Jackson (Benjamin White), a young Canadian university professor, asks CIA bureaucrat John Doyle (Benjamin Lloyd) at the beginning of Jason Sherman's play, Three in the Back, Two in the Head, presented by InterAct Theatre in their new home in the Wilma's old theater space.

He is asking about his father Donald Jackson, a Canadian scientist who has been found dead, in a church, with five bullets in his skull and spine. Between them, Paul and Doyle tell each other (and us) what they know -- or at least what they are willing to tell -- about the events leading up to Jackson's assassination, acting out the events in their own and one another's accounts as they narrate them.

From 1958 to 1983, we soon learn, the elder Jackson had been working for the U.S. Defense Department on "Snowman," a space- based missile defense system, until the program was scrubbed in favor of Reagan's laser-based Star Wars program, and has since been working on the system for an enemy state referred to in the discussions only by coded initials.

What we don't know is whether he was killed (by agents of the "friendly" nation neighboring Jackson's patrons) at the orders of the CIA, or merely with their acquiescence; whether the CIA's agent Doyle was protecting Jackson from the Pentagon and the general "running'' Jackson, Ed Sparrow (John Barrett), or whether Sparrow was protecting Jackson from Doyle; whether Jackson actually sought his own death, and if so, whether it was in a valiant attempt to give the world its ultimate protection from war, or to expose and embarrass the U.S. government that had so betrayed him."

Having trouble following all this? Well, there you are. The mysteries at the core of Three in the Back, Two in the Head are excessively complex. Sherman is clearly more interested in the themes that emerge from this web of intrigue and deceit, almost all of which are linked to the very idea of "protection": whether a strategic defense system actually protects populations or increases their incentive for aggression and destruction; whether the powers charged with protecting the nation are really more interested in their own domestic and international power; whether the power to destroy can ever be harnessed for peace; and, most significantly, whether a complex lie offers greater protection -- to the teller as well as to the listener -- than the simple truth.

Fascinating stuff, this. But the problem with Three in the Back, Two in the Head as a play is that, while its dramatic logic moves us inexorably toward wanting to know the truth, the play's true interest resides in the complexity of its lies.

Paul and Doyle, the antagonists at the heart of the play, are completely mismatched in this, not because of the relative strengths of the actors (who are well-matched), but because of what they are given to play. Doyle's lies are simply much more interesting to watch than Paul's truths.

And Benjamin Lloyd, as Doyle, is a virtuoso, an Itzhak Perlman of liars. He navigates between half-truths and Mamet-like unfinished sentences until Paul calls him on a lie ("I know you are lying, but I respect your right to do that," says Paul, to which Doyle responds, with a twinkle, "And I respect your right to tell me that I'm lying"). Lloyd gets to play virtually all of his scenes twice, once in the version that he is narrating, and then a second time in the version that Paul had heard from his father, with Doyle stepping in and out of the scene, protesting (and lying) "I wouldn't say that."

Benjamin White's actor's task as Paul is much more difficult and, through no fault of his own, much less successful. Even in his narration he is really more of a listener -- to his father, to his distressed mother (Hazel Bowers), and to Doyle. He can only watch, passively, as his father undergoes his final crisis of faith. And when Doyle finally puts on the screws, all Paul, and White, can do is sit and crumble.

This leaves a vacuum at the moral and emotional core of the play, the part that evidently interests the playwright most, centering on Jackson, the mysterious character at the play's heart.

Director Tim Moyer has valiantly stepped into the role of the doomed Jackson (replacing Doug Wing who, as David Warner reported in last week's City Paper, was recently hospitalized and who is scheduled to be aided by a benefit performance of Three in the Back, Two in the Head on Feb. 3). Under the circumstances, Moyer effectively portrays Jackson's missionary zeal, his arrogance, his defiance of Doyle (in both Doyle's and Paul's differing accounts of the encounter), and his final dissolution and death. And he is genuinely touching in this last scene, scrambling over the graves of fallen soldiers in Europe, trying to remember the prophetic words to "Jerusalem," while his wife and son look on.

But by then, it's too late. By this point in the 90-minute play, we've simply gotten sucked into Doyle's lies, and the complexities of Sherman's plotting. And, despite the play's rich themes and the production's staging and earnest performances, the result is fatal.

-- Cary M. Mazer