If you think the title is funny, you'll probably enjoy "Mastergate." If you find it adolescent, which I'm afraid I do, stay home and read Mark Twain on politics.
Larry Gelbart's attempt to satirize contemporary political ineptitude has the subtitle "a play on words." For much of the evening, "Mastergate" is indeed that.
Gelbart is skillful at lampooning current Washington gobbledygook, as when a character declares to a Senate investigating committee, "My involvement was strictly limited to the extent of my participation," or when another speaks of "future and probably deniability."
He also understands the bureaucratic mentality, as when he has a witness say, "I'm not cleared to have that kind of curiosity, sir."
At times he engages in word play for its own sake. A witness is asked a standard forensic question, "Do you recall your appearance at that time?" and answers, "I think I looked much the same as I do now."
This cleverness grows tiresome after about 10 minutes. Moreover, when one of the witnesses says, "Ethics and morality aside, I was aware that I had a higher obligation to do as I was ordered," it sounds a bit stale.
The plot of "Mastergate" concerns an attempt by the CIA to take over a film studio and use its production of a war film as a conduit to get arms to Central America. This might have made a nice "Saturday Night Live" skit but, despite the skill of the performers, it is not a very satisfying piece of theater.
This is yet another case of reality far outstripping fiction. Gelbart's unraveling of a potentially funny situation has none of the suspense or the amusement of actual congressional investigations. They hinge, after all, on Character. Gelbart's situations are entirely stereotyped and predictable.
The cast mimics Washington mannerisms craftily, particularly those that flourish under the lights of TV cameras. The most interesting thing about the show is the arrangement of the investigators in various parts of the audience, the investigat-ees on stage, and crews of assistants and TV people constantly moving between them. This generates a superficial sense of excitement.
Jerome Kilty has an admirable grasp of the effusive graciousness the chairmen of investigating committees tend to show. Daniel von Bargen beautifully conveys the smoldering umbrage of a military man forced to testify to an unsavory group of civilians.
Jeff Weiss plays three roles, one of them a dead man, with larger than life gusto. In the most topical part of the evening, Joseph Daly does an imitation of Bush that is wonderfully on target.
"It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress," Twain wrote a century ago. The Executive branch has outstripped the Legislative in this area. They do it more interestingly than Gelbart.
When did we last have a thoroughly partisan political play on Broadway? You have to go back to Gore Vidal's "An Evening with Richard Nixon" in 1972, or Jay Broad's "Red, White and Maddox" in 1969, to find Broadway revealing anything like a political streak, let alone a poltical conscience.
For this reason alone - and there are funnier ones - Larry Gelbart's "Mastergate," a self-styled "play on words," which last night opened at the Criterion Center Stage Right with a few somewhat Center Stage Left opinions, would be welcome.
And for much of the time - before it fizzles out at the end - this parody of congressional hearings from Watergate to Irangate has some riotously ribald moments.
Set in a Congressional Hearing in the John Mitchell Room, exhaustively recorded by Total Network News, the "action is relentless, with no intermission."
It concerns - rather loosely, if we may try, in Gelbart's own apt phrase, "broadly narrowing down the scope" - that "debilitating government self-abuse known as 'Mastergate,'" which involved the head of the CIA (now more or less deceased), a gung-ho Major Manley Battle (the only five-star major in the Armed Forces) and a varied cast of senators, congressmen and lawyers, to say nothing of an odd vice-president and his odder, if silent, wife.
It also involves a plot - the government has acquired a Hollywood film studio from the non-payment of taxes by a shady financier and handed it over to the CIA to run.
The CIA, during the course of making "Tet - the Movie," manages to overspend sufficiently to finance a private guerrilla war (a sort of "King Viet Kong - the Un-Movie") in Central America.
The key issue of the investigation - and as its chairman so pertinently puts it "I don't want to take up any more time than I will" - is to discover: "What did the President know, and did he have any idea he knew it?"
The fascinating reality of all these congressional hearings - I became an addict of them, as, obviously, did Gelbart - was comic enough, and the playwright really hasn't had to distort that reality by anything much more than a little shrewd exaggeration.
Gelbart is obviously almost as appalled at the onslaught upon our always fragile language as on any mayhem dealt to the basically resilient U.S. Constitution.
He has a lovely comic ear for the wilder bureaucratic excesses of gobbledegook, sensing out the dangers of George Orwell's newspeak and doublethink, but also painfully exulting in such seemingly harmless evasions as "compliance of the non-variety" instead of a "no!"
The virtues of the piece are evident, and Gelbart - co-author of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," adaptor of a rare Ben Jonson into a "Sly Fox," and mastermind of TV's "M*A*S*H" - has made the most of them.
Yet it remains more an extended (relentlessly extended, in fact) revue sketch than a play, and the joke has started to fade well before the end, where the author tries, without much success, to provide a knock-out, cataclysmic, "Dr. Strangelove" ending.
Thus it proves an evening more of incidental belly laughs ending in a belly flop rather than a sustained evening of satire - and for that matter the satire is perhaps a little too gentle-natured for the good of its corrosive potential.
I laughed a lot - sometimes wryly, sometimes explosively - but I was not instructed or surprised. In a sense, the original was better on all such counts.
This strange and almost new theater, partly in the round, makes an appropriate venue for a committee room. Philipp Jung's formal setting, festooned with appropriate dummies and dominated by a huge painting of governmental significance, is fine, while Michael Engler's crisp staging catches exactly the ebb and flow of committee testimony.
The actors - many playing more than one role - have all the fun of charades and all offer caricatures of some moment. I liked particularly Jeff Weiss in a range of guises, Joseph Daly as the garrulously homespun vice-president, as well as Ann McDonough as his mutely gregarious wife.
Equal fun was provided by Jerome Kilty as a pompous Chairman of the Committee, Zach Grenier as various Dickensianly-named lawyers, a gorgeously hollow Daniel von Bargen as the bemedalled major with the mostest, as well as Wayne Knight, Tom McDermott, John Dossett and Steve Hofvendahl, all in every manner of naive evasiveness known to man and government.
Unfortunately - when all is said and laughed - it is a brief evening that would have been even better even shorter.
How do you write a truthful play in which everyone is a liar? Set it on Capitol Hill, of course. In ''Mastergate,'' Larry Gelbart's excoriating satire of the Iran-contra hearings, the witnesses before a Congressional committee aspire only to be ''steadfastly evasive and selectively honest,'' and they don't even succeed at that. They speak in nonsensical double talk and official bureaucratese redolent of such past Gelbart writings as Sid Caesar's shtick and television's ''M*A*S*H.'' As Maj. Manley Battle - a lunatic amalgam of Oliver North, Alexander Haig and Joseph Heller's Major Major - says, ''I prefer to call a spade by its code word.''
Yet Mr. Gelbart, unlike his obfuscating characters, speaks the harsh truth. ''Mastergate'' isn't subtitled ''A Play on Words'' for nothing. Its subject is not just Washington's scandals but the destruction of language that accompanies those scandals, for language is the first casualty of official mendacity. American voters have now lived through two decades of ''pacification programs,'' ''modified limited hangouts,'' ''stonewalling,'' ''non-denial denials'' and other euphemisms for covert criminal actions or their subsequent cover-ups. What has this relentlessly corrupt coinage done to our society? Mr. Gelbart, mad as hell and unable to take it anymore, has written a comedy in which the laughter derives almost entirely from the linguistic pratfalls taken by public officials to avoid taking responsibility for their betrayal of the public trust.
Set in the Sherman Adams Room of the John Mitchell Building - in Philipp Jung's environmental design, a Congressional circus ringed by television monitors - ''Mastergate'' is ''an exhausting inquiry'' into the latest example of ''debilitating governmental self-abuse.'' The scandal in question was an attempt to divert arms to Central American guerrillas by funneling a billion dollars through Master Pictures' high-budget action film, ''Tet!, the Movie.'' But the inquiry's most pressing question - ''What did the President know, and does he have any idea that he knew it?'' - is soon swamped by the testimony's oxymorons, mixed metaphors, mangled idioms and dizzying jargon.
Officials testify about their non-participation in ''non-discussions'' and applaud the ally of San Elvador for practicing ''a democratic form of government that's been run by its army for the past 40 years.'' One inquisitor promises to ''broadly narrow down the scope'' of the hearings while a harried Secretary of State (Tom McDermott) sonorously assures the committee that ''the truth will have to wait until I finish testifying.'' To thicken the smoke screen separating citizens from the facts, ''Mastergate'' has another overlay of falsehood provided by the fatuous gavel-to-gavel coverage of Total News Network. It's part of Mr. Gelbart's point that the fictive media event, or in the historian Daniel Boorstin's phrase, ''the pseudo-event,'' and the actual news event have blurred into a single impenetrable morass. Everyone is showboating for the camera, whether in Congressional tribunals or in the real or faked battle scenes that have brought war, from Tet on, into our living rooms each night.
In Michael Engler's production at the Criterion Center, this point is accentuated by asking the theater audience to choose between watching the live action and its simultaneous closed-circuit broadcast on the video monitors. Mr. Engler, the young director who did so well by the human comedy of Richard Greenberg's ''Eastern Standard'' last season, is equally gifted at delivering a heartless comic barrage consistent with Mr. Gelbart's Broadway adaptations of Plautus (''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum'') and Ben Jonson (''Sly Fox'').
''Mastergate'' is staged as a Herblock cartoon come to life, with bright caricatures to match from a vivid acting ensemble led by Jerome Kilty as a Sam Ervinesque committee chairman, Jeff Weiss doubling as posturing Congressmen of both the ''gung-holier than thou'' right and the Jane Fonda left, Daniel von Bargen as the overdecorated major and Joseph Daly as a down-home Vice President who applauds ''the Revolution thing'' in American history even while failing to recall exactly when it was.
What Mr. Engler cannot do is disguise the fact that ''Mastergate,'' however smart, is not the Broadway show its venue suggests but a sketch - and one that feels stretched to fill 90 minutes. There are times when Mr. Gelbart's compulsive wordplays, whether malapropisms or pun-ridden proper names, run off into wheel-spinning overdrive, and there are a few missed satiric opportunities that might have served in their place. It seems a waste to have a television correspondent who sounds exactly like Diane Sawyer (Melinda Mullins) and not have fun with her real-life counterpart's role as a press officer in the waning days of the Nixon White House. Nor does Mr. Gelbart, a co-author of ''Tootsie'' and a veteran of show-biz wars, get all the juice out of the Hollywood corruption that makes the budget-padding of ''Tet!, the Movie'' echo ''Heaven's Gate'' as much as Watergate.
By outliving Oliver North's trial and the front-page prominence of figures like George Shultz and William Casey, ''Mastergate'' has also lost immediacy since its premiere at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge last spring. Satire can have the shelf life of yesterday's newspapers. But if ''Mastergate'' leaves the audience a bit unsatisfied, especially by its lack of resolution, that is consistent with the Iran-contra affair itself, which refuses to follow the well-made scenario of Watergate. As Theodore Draper wrote in The New York Review of Books over the summer, ''Without a full disclosure of the President's responsibility, the [ North ] trial took on the appearance of 'Hamlet' without the Prince.'' In The New Yorker this week, Frances FitzGerald similarly likens the scandal, with its shuffled events and shredded subplots, to ''modernist drama'': ''The simple, old-fashioned questions cannot be answered directly, and the most serious questions have jokes for answers.''
Mr. Gelbart has sharpened those black jokes and demands that we take seriously the ''squandered lives and laundered dollars'' that are their constant punch lines. ''Mastergate'' concludes with an angry warning of ''the next, inevitable Whatever-Gate,'' with its fresh crowd of ''photo-opportunistic nobodies who grab the limelight before either being sent on to jail or up to higher office.'' And with Noriegate and HUD-gate looming, the warning sticks. When ''Mastergate'' is funny, it is very funny. When it is not, it still stands up for a patriotic integrity beyond the understanding of the clowns who parade across its national stage.