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‘Both your Houses’ is a timeless, fast-moving tale of political culture

The works of the late Maxwell Anderson, one of America’s most prolific, and perhaps most underappreciated 20th century playwrights, are relatively unknown on Buffalo stages. That oversight has been happily remedied by the opening of one of Anderson’s best-known plays, 1933’s “Both Your Houses,” a Pulitzer Prize-winner, at the Kavinoky Theatre. It’s disturbingly topical, funny yet worrisome, an ironic, insightful look into the maddening machinations of the U.S. Congress.

David Lamb sagely directs a stellar cast of 16 for the Kav, now in its 36th season.

Anderson wrote a play a year – sometimes more – during his peak writing time (1924-38). “What Price Glory?,” “Winterset,” “High Tor,” “Key Largo,” “Anne of a Thousand Days” were among them, plus a score of satires, historical dramas and works of social consciousness. There even was a collaboration with composer Kurt Weill, the universally acclaimed “Lost in the Stars,” an intense tale of South African politics and apartheid – with music.

James Cagney, Ingrid Bergman, Katherine Cornell (Buffalo’s diva) and a young Rex Harrison all starred in his plays. He adapted many a novel for stage and screen, including “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “The Bad Seed.” Brooks Atkinson was a huge Anderson booster: “He consistently wrote with taste and dignity,” the critic said.

But the man could skewer hypocrites and politicians, and he does so in “Both Your Houses.” Its title is borrowed from “Romeo and Juliet,” specifically the doomed Mercutio’s cry, “a plague on both your houses” – zeroing in on our elected congressional representatives as they debate funding for the Hoover Dam project in the mid-1930s.

The House Appropriations Committee, the wise and wily chairman of the body – a “charlatan sanctuary,” as one member called it – has slashed suggested pork, with a few exceptions, notably a new penitentiary back in his own district, much to the anger of his greedy panel of crooks, opportunists and cheerful swindlers.

A greenhorn newcomer from Nevada, Alan McClean, arrives, determined to make more cuts and include reforms that would save taxpayer money even at the possible loss of the construction windfall for his own constituency. Alan has good intentions but is no match for the brandy-and-cigar crowd, one full of patronage and partisanship.

Well, there is outrage, national interest is pushed to the curb, and Alan is threatened, but it becomes obvious that the novice politico is up against some experts in the influence peddling game. When Alan reverses course and champions every piece of largesse possible – certainly drawing the president’s wrath and his veto pen – back-room dealings and secret handshakes multiply. Alan discovers ramifications – “death by electorate,” for one – and there are personal consequences he never pondered. The stakes are high.

Don’t let the age of this play fool you into thinking it’s a museum piece. It’s a fast-moving, crisp, remarkably modern tale of our lawmaking culture.

Director Lamb’s ensemble is fully charged and the verbal exchanges are electric, particularly around the conference table. The cast is led by Christopher Evans, superb as McClean; Norm Sham, as shameless manipulator Solomon Fitzmaurice; Peter Palmisano, the Chairman, tired of the system but still a player. Plus Aleks Malejs, Russell Papia, Jessica Wegrzyn and an honor roll of others: Christian Brandjes, Kevin Craig, Kurt Erb, Anne Gayley, Gregory Gjurich, Kurt Guba, Robert Insana, Steve Jakiel, Tim Joyce and Gerry Maher.

There is a looming Capitol Dome set, wonderful work by David King. Costumes by Benjamin Streeter add mightily to the Great Depression feel.

The Kavinoky has revived an eye-opener.

REVIEW

4 stars

What: “Both Your Houses”

Where: The Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave.

When: Through Dec. 6

Tickets: $42 general; $38 seniors and military; $15 students

Info: 829-7668, kavinokytheatre.com