On Aug. 10, 1991, a 44-year-old freelance journalist named Danny Casolaro was found dead in a West Virginia hotel room. His wrists were slashed. His death was officially a suicide.
For conspiracy theorists — or, depending on your political point of view, for realists about the lengths of malfeasance to which the government will stoop to avoid discovery of its special favors for special interests — that was all-too-convenient a demise for a reporter who was deep into any number of Reagan-era shady official dealings.
At the time of his death at that Sheraton Hotel, the evidence suggests, Casolaro was investigating thorny matters that eventually made it out into the open in some form or another, including the Inslaw case (the allegation that the Justice Department had stolen software), the so-called October Surprise theory (the allegation that the release of American hostages in Iran had been intentionally delayed to ensure President Jimmy Carter lost the 1980 presidential election) and, of course, the Iran-Contra business, involving the clandestine sale of weapons to Iran.
All of those scandals of that not-too-distant era made it into "Danny Casolaro Died For You," the new play at the TimeLine Theatre, under the direction of Nick Bowling and with Kyle Hatley in the title role. This is only the second production of the piece: the first was at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in Massachusetts. The author of that play, Dominic Orlando, certainly has some skin in the game. He was Casolaro's cousin.
It is fair to say from the evidence presented at the TimeLine Theatre that Orlando does not think it probable that his cousin committed suicide. And Orlando is certainly no fan of mainstream media, building the case that his cousin was brushed off, condescend to, and, in the final analysis, had his work stolen by staffers from the big dailies and news magazines to which Casolaro had tried to sell his story.
Orlando, a playwright who developed this all-male piece with the help of the well-regarded Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis, certainly builds an excellent case for his skepticism, detailed in a play that's like a tour of an era when expedient choices were rampant — although you could certainly argue such eras are omnipresent in Washington.
Either way, "Danny Casolaro" involves a succession of clandestine meetings with shadowy, bizarre figures like Robert Nichols (Philip Earl Johnson), Michael Riconosciuto (an especially lively Mark Richard), Brian Ehrlich (Dennis William Grimes) and, of course, Dr. John (Jamie Vann). There are other sources not to be entirely trusted; most of these actors play several parts, which is very apropos, given the many identities of many of those they are playing.
"Danny Casolaro" certainly is a refreshingly political piece. There are all too few political dramas on Chicago stages, especially plays dealing with a not-so-distant era that remains under-explored, at least from an artistic point of view. Script-wise, though, the main problem that presents itself is that it feels far more like Orlando has written a screenplay than a dramatic work for the theater. If that was intentional, you can understand why. A Hollywood movie, aside from the obvious rewards, is more likely to bring renewed attention to the suspicious circumstances of the demise of his late cousin.
That's manifest in the abundance of short scenes — requiring, at one point, the needless staging of a full-blown dinner in a posh New York eatery. You can sense it in the dialogue, which emphasizes plotting over more contemplative themes. And you can feel it in the overall ambience of a piece that needs so many interiors and exteriors, rushing by; it must have been far from easy for Bowling to figure out how to stage the work in TimeLine's intimate setting (the design, typically imaginative and immersive for this theater, is by Collette Pollard). But there's a price to pay in that the work plays a bit too much like faux-Aaron Sorkin, building tension and attitude very effectively, but never fully embracing its own potential theatricality. Or taking a breath.
So all that needs work. In terms of the production, which is quite solid and features a number of carefully observed, if briefly exhibited, characters, the big issue is that you don't sufficiently invest in Casolaro's quest. I think that's partly to do with the script and partly because Hatley, although an interesting presence with a physical resemblance to Casolaro, feels neither sufficiently capable of suffering nor of really impressing upon us the morality of his quest. As with a lot that goes on here, the actor spends so much time interacting with the plotting, he doesn't get to show us enough of his guy, unplugged. .
Orlando is himself in the story — or, at least, a fictionalized version of himself is there, through a character named Thomas Vacarro who is played, with some moral authority, by Demetrios Troy. That works to a point, but you never quite sure of your narrative guide, just as you wish that this passionate piece of theater would pause for some additional contemplation of what all these shadowy figures mean, a quarter of a century later.
There's a case to be made that Watergate would have changed little in the White House, were that scandal to have happened in today's more fractured, and far less trusted, media landscape. It would have been easier now for the instigators and lawyers to wave off the criticism as flawed and partisan. Maybe Oliver North would have been able to continue his deals unimpeded. Maybe similar deals are being made this very day, maybe from the opposite side of the political spectrum. Those are the kinds of things we go to the theater to discuss.