Satire, like archery, is about hitting the target. You can have the most beautiful quiver, the most shapely bow, the most aerodynamic arrows. But if you don't know where to aim, you're wasting your time.
Gip Hoppe's comedy "Jackie" is a satire in search of a target. The playwright has crafted a great weapon for ridicule. As director, he has primed it to perfection. He has loaded it with invention, energy and skill. And he hasn't a clue where to point it.
Who is it aimed at? Not at Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose life is the play's subject. She is, in Margaret Colin's impressive portrayal, a distant, wry, elegantly stoical figure. But the play is on her side. She is, in a show full of cruelty, treated with tenderness.
Not John F. Kennedy. He is no hero here. But compared to, say, Seymour Hersh's new book on JFK, he gets off lightly. Members of the wider Kennedy clan will not be amused by "Jackie," but neither will it make their cheeks burn.
The closest the play comes to making a real satiric attack is with two of its characters Aristotle Onassis and Rupert Murdoch. Onassis is unmercifully, and hilariously, lampooned by Thomas Derrah. In one of Hoppe's happiest inventions, he and his daughter, Christina, are imagined, to real comic effect, as figures in a Greek tragedy. But Onassis, after all, is dead. And kicking corpses is hardly what brave satire is about.
Murdoch appears briefly near the end of the evening, caricatured as a god with a satellite dish for a crown. Again, this is funny and, again, it is impressively achieved. But the moment is too brief and the attack on tabloid journalism too banal to serve as a focus for the whole show. And without that focus, the play is, finally, about nothing in particular.
"Jackie" tells a story that is probably familiar even to hermits in Tierra del Fuego. Yet, for a time, the tale is so well told that it seems new and fresh. So much of the meat is in the staging rather than the text that "Jackie" is an exception to the rule whereby playwrights should not direct their own work.
The words are seldom profound and the verbal jokes are often thin. But the visual effects are often stunning. Hoppe's real interest, indeed, seems not to be in Jackie or John or Ari but in the theater itself.
The show is really a display of dramatic parodies. It uses puppets, cut-outs, music-hall routines, English drawing-room comedy, French ballet, Greek tragedy. It has superbly playful designs. And all of this is, in itself, terrific fun.
But Jackie's life is, in the end, not funny. It has at its heart a terrible, brutal event. This is a woman who sat in a car beside her husband and was sprayed with his life's blood.
No amount of spoofing, no comic brilliance, is going to get over that simple fact.
And, sure enough, after it has happened early in the second half of "Jackie," the play itself dies. The breezy, cartoonish mockery that has sustained it suddenly loses its attraction. We want the play to say something, and realize, all too clearly, that it has nothing to say.
For some reason, a Broadway play about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sounded in prospect unpromising and manipulative. A TV special perhaps, but a play? That seemed to be pushing it.
But when Gip Hoppe's "Jackie - An American Life," which opened at the Belasco Theater last night, is good, it is surprisingly good. When it is bad it is, unsurprisingly, not so good.
Let's get its basic problem over with straight away because, oddly enough, that very basic difficulty is integral to the work's quality.
"Jackie," you see, is a satire - but a friendly satire. This is not only a contradiction in terms, it also produces a fiendish muddle.
All the people, and most of the incidents, surrounding Jackie are seen as objects of fun (though, in fairness, John F. Kennedy comes off pretty well and Lyndon Johnson isn't even mentioned).
But Jackie herself emerges almost as a candidate for sainthood. Everyone is out of step - and even doing a funny walk worthy of Monty Python - except our Jackie.
One doesn't even have to have a problem with such thoroughgoing hagiography to realize that this approach is going to result in an alarming fuzziness of tone and focus, not to mention a constant wonderment about where the play is going, what it thinks it's doing, and, at the end, what the playwright considers it has achieved.
The pleasures of the piece are largely incidental - but nonetheless real for that. This ironic celebration of celebrity - yes, there is a kind of subtext questioning people watching people and living vicarious lives - is at times very funny, and unquestionably Hoppe touches all the known bases of his heroine's life.
It produces the kind of sophomoric shock tactics that characterized the best political aspects of "Saturday Night Live."
These sometimes fall flat, as in the evening's very opening, suggesting an auction of Jackie's kitchen supplies, but quite frequently achieve a kind of zany zinginess, such as its depiction of the Kennedy/Nixon 1V debates.
The play is devised as a revue, a series of black-out skits, but Hoppe, who has staged it himself, makes clever use of puppets (created by the Big Nazo Studio), and various other theatrical devices, with models and perspectives.
The scenery design, by the brilliantly inventive David Gallo, is integral to the show, and is perhaps its most consistent and single-minded virtue. It is Gallo who gives "Jackie" its style and look.
And the cast of eight - playing all of Camelot, the Greek Islands and the territory in between – is good and protean. The only two actors who play only one role are Margaret Colin, as the eponymous saint, and Victor Slezak as JFK.
Colin doesn't look much like Mrs. Onassis - which is perhaps an asset, because it helps move the characterization away from mere imitation. And she does gleam very convincingly, honestly yet unpriggishly, on the pedestal upon which the playwright has almost impaled her.
Slezak does very well as the President, stressing JFK's charm and underlying integrity with brusque, unforced humor. But then the whole crew does a fine job.
There is Derek Smith marvelous in a dozen roles, including a memorably sweaty Nixon, Lisa Emery has fun as Eunice Kennedy, Thomas Derrah makes an ebullient Ari Onassis, Bill Camp proves engaging as Bobby Kennedy, Kristine Nielsen shimmers in all the wrong places as Marilyn Monroe, while Gretchen Egolf makes a nice Greek tragedy figure out of Christina Onassis.
"Jackie" may be an insubstantial way to spend an evening, or the price of a Broadway ticket, but it definitely has its lighthearted moments and whimsical style.
''Just because you know some details about a person's life doesn't mean you know the person.'' That's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis speaking, or at least the simulacrum of her that is now addressing Broadway audiences in Gip Hoppe's sketchbook of a show, ''Jackie: An American Life,'' which opened last night at the Belasco Theater.
Actually, this is something that Mrs. Onassis might indeed have said. This, after all, was a woman who had the best of all vantage points for pondering the gap between the cardboard construct of celebrity and the private self behind it. And she is reported to have observed not long before her death three years ago, ''When you get written about a lot, you just think of it as a little cartoon that runs along the bottom of your life, but one that doesn't have much to do with your life.''
Mr. Hoppe, who both wrote and directed ''Jackie,'' is smart enough to acknowledge that difference and cautious enough to avoid plunging into speculations on the real secrets of America's favorite sphinx. Instead, what he delivers is that ''little cartoon'' of which Mrs. Onassis spoke: the tabloid-generated comic strip that, despite its creators' relentless efforts, never got beyond two dimensions.
It's no accident that the most salient characteristic of ''Jackie,'' aside from its leading lady, who is played with improbable success by Margaret Colin, is David Gallo's furiously inventive scenery, which blurs the lines between human effigies (cardboard cutouts, giant puppets from the Big Nazo Studio) and real people. It is obviously Mr. Hoppe's point that the inquiring minds of the public tend to flatten and depersonalize their objects of curiosity.
Point taken. So where do we go from here?
The answer is not very far. If ''Jackie'' is a comic strip, it is one that most Americans have read many times before and probably even memorized. Presenting chapters from Mrs. Onassis's life that could be found in any supermarket biography as a series of lampoonish vignettes, this overextended evening most often suggests an anthology of ''Saturday Night Live'' sketches from both its peak and its lame seasons.
''Jackie,'' which developed a cult following in its earlier run at (appropriately) the Hasty Pudding Theater in Cambridge, Mass., establishes its patterns of lows and relative highs in its opening minutes. The production begins with the fabled Sotheby's auction of Mrs. Onassis's possessions, an event portrayed in strokes of lead. (The bids reach into the millions for things like dishwashing detergent, and the bidders bleat like sheep when they leave the stage.)
What immediately follows, however, is startling. Mr. Gallo's set opens up into an ethereal vista of receding classical porticos and there, at the top of a staircase, is Ms. Colin as Mrs. Onassis. Swathed in an aura that mixes reserve, rebuke and conditioned graciousness, Ms. Colin gingerly makes her way down the stairs to confront her audience.
''What do you want from me?'' she asks, in a voice that finds the steel in the much-imitated little-girl breathlessness. ''What is it that you find so fascinating?''
Ms. Colin has the gently reproachful presence and the imitative precision to get you feeling at least a little foolish, and perhaps a little guilty, for even being there. The moment is a beautifully rendered exercise in intentionally making an audience uncomfortable.
Mr. Hoppe has filled his show with pre-emptive strikes, self-consciously anticipating criticism. So in the same scene, he has Mrs. Onassis say wearily: ''It must all be so familiar to you. Yet here you are dying to hear it all again.'' Yet surely, you think, this is merely calculating false modesty, that there are revelatory insights in store.
Despite moments, particularly from Ms. Colin, that give a glimmer of subterranean substance, most of what occurs onstage is little more than goofball satire. The quick-change ingenuity of the ensemble, in an astonishing multitude of roles, and Mr. Gallo's willfully silly sets are finally only minor diversions. And it is unfair to expect what is essentially cabaret fare to hold a Broadway stage.
Mr. Gallo and the Big Nazo Studio have created a cornucopia of sight gags. (The patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy is presented as a giant talking head of a puppet; the redecoration of the White House is rendered in a flash by a whole army of identical Jackies.) But the show fails to find fresh takes on such frequently shot-at targets as the shallowness of Hamptons society and East Coast boarding schools, the sports-loving rambunctiousness of the Kennedy clan, the vulgarity of Aristotle Onassis or the image-fixated superficiality of the Nixon-Kennedy debates.
Only occasionally does Mr. Hoppe push the familiar into other realms, as he does in the scene where Mrs. Kennedy's legendary televised tour of the White House subtly turns into the cri de coeur of a woman who has come to see herself as a prisoner.
Actually, though it jokingly advertises itself as the ultimate invasion of privacy, ''Jackie'' is a strangely respectful work, even to its disadvantage. Although Ms. Colin's performance hints at a more complex character, Mr. Hoppe has allowed Mrs. Onassis to emerge with her mask intact. At least give him credit for gallantry.
It's not an auspicious sign when a comedy gets most of its laughs for its scenery, even if some of it is played by actors. Writer-director Gip Hoppe's "Jackie: An American Life" is packed full of wacky stage gimmickry and tongue-in-cheek cheesiness, played amid delightful candy-colored sets, but it's markedly deficient in a couple of key ingredients, namely wit and purpose. It's an overextended goof on the life of the title character, for which audiences are expected to pay Broadway prices.
Story begins at the end, at the auction of Jackie's effects, where a pile of kitchen accouterments --- "The items under the sink," the auctioneer grandly intones --- are being breathlessly bid for by fawning fans. The obviousness of the humor comes through quickly, when the bidders are herded off the stage by a shepherd. They bay like sheep, in case we didn't get the point of that hooked staff.
The highlights of the fabled femme's life are then duly covered in chronological fashion, from horse-besotted youth to debutante to presidential accessory to grieving widow and consort of Olympian millionaire Aristotle Onassis. While the woman herself is generally treated with vague affection, Hoppe pokes fun throughout at the supporting players in her life, although poke may be too strong a verb; none of the show's humor would tax the intelligence of a reasonably astute 12-year-old. (Campaigning with Jack, Jackie has to kiss a pig, then eat Wisconsin head cheese. Ick!)
There are no significant points to be made, and the targets are all familiar: Black Jack Bouvier's womanizing, JFK's womanizing, the Kennedy clan's obsessive sportiness, Jackie's acquisitiveness, the nasty depredations of the paparazzi, symbolized by a giant vulture puppet in press garb. There's no dramatic shape to the material, an absence that owes a little to the naturally episodic nature of a life but a lot more to Hoppe's lack of directorial point of view. The play doesn't even have the courage of its meager convictions: All spoofery stops at JFK's assassination, which is treated with treacly reverence.
"It's not what you do but how you look," Jackie is advised at one point, and it might be the show's own motto. David Gallo's set is fun: a series of Greek-columned prosceniums within prosceniums, lit in bright bursts of color by Peter Kaczorowski and augmented by intentionally cheesy cartoony cutouts that do most of the scene-setting.
In place of content, Hoppe and Gallo supply kooky stagecraft, with some genuinely amusing effects: a stage-filling puppet of Joe Kennedy booming his approval of Jackie as the clan cowers; the young Jackie whizzing back and forth on horse cutouts as in an arcade. Much is dumb and plainly meant to be: an actor holds up a miniature airplane and crosses the stage to signify a transcontinental journey. "Let me walk the door to you," someone says to JFK, and rolls on a doorframe.
With no dramatic purposes being served, the thinness of the gags glares brightly. Watching an actress impersonate a water cooler may raise a chuckle, but you're not likely to chuckle the next time, when someone plays a horse or a cafe table. Likewise, the puppet gimmick wears out its welcome long before the play's end. Such devices are charming when they embellish a show; in "Jackie," they are the show.
The nimble cast lends the scenery a helping hand by mugging and vamping as needed. Derek Smith is funny in a bit that has the JFK-Nixon debate centering exclusively on their physical attributes: JFK preens and describes his magnificent hair; Smith's Nixon counters grimly, "I'm sweating even more than before." And Gretchen Egolf is a hoot as Christina Onassis, played as a cross between Cassandra and the Bride of Frankenstein.
As Jackie, Margaret Colin deserves a medal of valor for her carefully styled non-performance. Speaking with a fair approximation of Jackie's patrician, girly breathiness, she strides through the play with a pretty public grin that's as fixed as Jackie's hairstyles and ensembles are suitably various (Susan Santoian's costumes are all snazzy and apt). Colin is smart enough to know better than to attempt to create a character when the playwright hasn't, treading delicately on the thin attempts at seriousness before and after JFK's death. But behind the placid smile you occasionally see intimations of something else: a lost look that may be the actress' or the character's. Either would be appropriate.