Hard to mistake the central themes in Soho Think Tank’s Red-Haired Thomas — a charming if confused production at the Ohio Theatre directed by Oliver Butler — when its central couple is a gambler and a risk management expert, and its narrator, chorus and director-within-the-work is Thomas Jefferson. Collisions between America’s twin ideological pillars, democracy and capitalism, resonate from the principle roles to the narrative-fueling MacGuffin: a $20 bill with Jefferson’s hair colored in red.
It’s telling, though, that one of the final revelations in Robert Lyons’s play is that it’s Andrew Jackson with his hair drawn red on the $20, not Jefferson. The contradiction between the "every voice counts," and "every man for himself" American ethos isn’t really Red-Haired Thomas‘s subject, but merely its backdrop. Peter Sprague plays bumbling New York dad Cliff: professional card player by night; father to precocious 12 year-old Abby (Nicole Raphael) and husband to cold corporate power-player Marissa (Danielle Skraastad) by day. Cliff also frequents a newspaper and magazine shop tended by Iftikhar (Danny Beiruti), whose business helps him support a wife and daughter living in the fictional Middle Eastern country Iftikharstan. Iftikhar’s business also provides the play’s innovative modular stage props, stacks of newspapers that are rearranged and dismantled to form furniture and various backdrops.
Clever blocking, stage design and inventive use of the Ohio’s lofted space aside, Red-Haired Thomas suffers from an uneven cast and writing that doesn’t so much question American democracy as fetishize its dubious origin story. Thomas Jefferson (Alan Benditt) introduces, narrates, intervenes and eventually directs the action. In this first layer of meta-narrative, Benditt is both founding father and father to Cliff and Iftikhar, men terrified of their maturing daughters and equipped with similar moral compasses. The fact that the real Thomas Jefferson fathered several non-white children with Sally Hemmings, one of his many slaves, doesn’t seem to register. Jefferson here is the perfect symbolic patriarch, omniscient and all-powerful; not the false idol of a democratic experiment whose origins may have facilitated its current failures.
These sons of Jefferson, similarly, are at best two-dimensional. Sprague’s Cliff alternates between acting a sweet schlub around his daughter and short-tempered chatterbox elsewhere. Endearing at times, and agile with some of Lyons’s enjoyable banter, Sprague’s frequently fudged lines during the show’s final preview performance were worrisome. At least his and Raphael’s father-daughter chemistry was convincing. Raphael’s performance as a surprisingly wise 12-year-old, incidentally, made even Benditt’s Jefferson seem rather childish. Beiruti’s Iftikhar, meanwhile, only abandoned his tone of righteous indignation to stare confusedly at his daughter (also played by Raphael, with an unfortunately Scottish-sounding Middle Eastern accent). This queasy filtering of allegorical Middle Eastern battlegrounds through the imaginary Iftikharstan felt unnecessary and misguided. If an offensive Hollywood fiasco like War Inc. can call Iraq by its name while making a mockery of it, an evidently intelligent and skilled playwright shouldn’t need to sidestep the issue.
Asking tough questions then leaving them unanswered, sadly, is much of what occurs in Red-Haired Thomas. American democracy is a shining beacon to be followed through our darkest hours; Jefferson its creator and metaphysical technician. Thankfully, some inspired moments keep things enjoyable: scenes between Sprague and Raphael, a dramatic exit from the play and theater when Benditt and Skraastad open a door directly onto Wooster Street. That Lyons squanders his timely subject matter, though, is all the more disappointing for coming in what will likely be Soho Think Tank’s final performance at the Ohio, which closes for good in June after 21 years under his guidance. In an America where capitalism still trumps democracy, it’s disappointing that a skilled artist being directly affected by this conflict of interests seems incapable of imagining a solution.