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Review: 'The Manchurian Candidate' at Chandler Studio Theatre

April 2, 2009 |  4:50 pm

Nightmare Those familiar with “The Manchurian Candidate” only from the 1962 and 2004 films may be surprised to learn that Richard Condon’s 1959 novel has plenty of mordant humor.

Director John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film, a taut Cold War-era thriller about a brainwashed Korean War hero transformed into an on-call killing machine, captured the Cold War paranoia of the times.  Frankenheimer played it straight, emphasizing suspense over satire, with superb results.

In the 1990s, esteemed theater critic John Lahr tried his hand at adapting Condon’s novel into a play, far less successfully.  In the current staging of Lahr’s “The Manchurian Candidate,” presented by the Production Company at the Chandler Studio Theatre, director Robert Craig emphasizes the book’s humor and then some.  And although the tactic doesn’t work as well in the play’s grim finale, Craig and his energetic cast fully commit to their material, however flawed.

Lahr’s version retains the novel’s basic characters and plot.  Ersatz war hero Raymond Shaw (Michael A. Newcomer) is still an emotionally battered pawn who has been brainwashed, along with his commanding officer, Ben Marco (Beau Puckett) and the rest of his platoon.  But in Lahr’s unfortunately muddled version, these men are not Korean combatants but U.N. Peacekeepers whose mission and milieu are never clearly defined.  Shaw’s stepfather, corrupt Sen. Johnny Iselin (Rich Skidmore), is no longer a McCarthy-esque Red-baiter but a political opportunist who has been whipping up populist frenzy against, of all things, the Japanese – a bizarre substitute for the Red Menace of the original.  Fortunately, Shaw’s mother, Eleanor (Amanda Karr), retains her crystalline menace and motivations.

Perhaps if Lahr had written his work after the 9/11 attacks, it would have had more focus and immediacy.  Yet Craig and his spirited performers keep the lid rattling on Lahr’s potboiler. Puckett’s Marcos is convincingly staunch, Skidmore’s Iselin is a comically nefarious buffoon, and Newcomer’s tortured, muted Shaw balances the proceedings with real emotional depth.  However, it is the terrific Karr who stands out as the monstrous Eleanor.  Daringly over-the-top, Karr would surely twirl her mustache if she had one.  Her advanced tutorial in histrionics is a real treat.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“The Manchurian Candidate,” Chandler Studio Theatre, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood.  8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays.  Ends May 2.  $22.  Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. (800) 838-3006 or

Photo: Nightmarish doctor (David Ghilardi) hovers over Capt. Ben Marco (Beau Puckett). Credit: Robert Craig.