Returning to 'The Return to Morality' with Playwright Jamie Pachino

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday September 2, 2016

EDGE readers scarcely need to have it explained to them that this election season has been the loopiest, and the most frightening, of any this country has seen in... well, probably ever. When plays like Patrick Gabridge's "Blinders," written as outrageous farce in the 1990s, start to seem prescient, you know you're in trouble -- and the same holds true for another sharp and funny political comedy from that decade, Jamie Pachino's "The Return to Morality," running Sept. 8 - 25 in a Titanic Theatre Company production at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge.

The play -- receiving its New England premiere in this production -- follows the more or less hapless exploits of a Jewish writer named Arthur Kellogg (formerly Kellerman) who decides to write a book so full of rotten red meat for the fringe right that it'll make a splash. Indeed it does... but for all the wrong reasons. Before he knows it, Arthur is swept up in a media frenzy, as his book hits the best seller list and he's suddenly a hero to America's angry, disaffected classes. What started as a satirical jab rapidly turns into an all-too-serious crisis for Arthur, who responds by play-acting to fit the part of the voice of the extreme right... but who then finds the line between play-acting and reality starting to blur.

If the meteoric rise of a trash-talking huckster sounds familiar, that's because you have a pulse and have, to some extent -- any extent -- been following the news.

Pachino has won a truckload of awards and accolades for her theater work. She had also written for both the small and large screens, and is currently both a writer and a supervising producer for NBC's drama "Chicago PD." EDGE recently had the pleasure of chatting with her about her nearly-two-decade-old play, its relevance in the here and now, and the ways in which the media of theater, movies, and television all influence one another.

EDGE: Your play "The Return to Morality" is clearly a satire...

Jamie Pachino: It was when I wrote it.

EDGE: It was when you wrote it -- exactly! I've heard satire defined as poking fun at people in a way that goes over their heads. Would you consider 'The Return to Morality' to be, in some sense, a satire within a satire?

Jamie Pachino: I define satire much like Arthur does in the play, which is to say one thing in the extreme to prove its opposite point -- so that the logical becomes absurd, but it's still plausible. I feel like that's being played out in our politics today.

EDGE: This is not a new play -- I've seen reviews dating back as far as 2012, which was, of course, the last presidential election.

Jamie Pachino: It was originally produced in 1999.


I wrote it in '98. The first reading it ever had was part of a festival which came three weeks after Bill Clinton said, "I did not have sex with that woman." I wrote it as a reaction to the Far Right, who at that time were the Moral Majority and that whole thing, and I honest to God thought it had a shelf life of until Clinton was out of the presidency. Of course, the joke's on me -- it's only become more and more relevant as the years have gone by, and now it's almost not a satire.

EDGE: Do you now think, "Wow, maybe I didn't go far enough!" when you look at "The Return to Morality?"

Jamie Pachino: At the time it was absurd -- the things in the lead character's book, everything that happens to him, the circus of it all... I think since the Clinton presidency you're looking at a much more sophisticated machine behind any candidate, along with a savvy manipulation of the media. Or else maybe we wouldn't have a reality TV show presidential candidate. There's a weird double edge: The play has the same teeth it had back then, and in some ways it's kind of quaint.

EDGE:Are we still taking politics seriously in this country? Or has the whole question of how we govern ourselves devolved into some sort of cynical brand of infotainment?

Jamie Pachino: To me, it's both. There are plenty of passionate people, (and I would include myself), that are distraught about what's going on, that are passionate about their candidate, and who feel betrayed by the media and voters who think it's hilarious what's going on. I'm hopeful -- because I am an optimist at heart -- that good people will win, and that the Republican party that's out there will start to take itself seriously and back up from where they've come. We're a reality TV show world, and this is a reality TV show candidate. At the start of Trump's campaign, there were people who were saying, "That'll never happen." I knew immediately -- "Oh, yeah. That's gonna happen."

EDGE: The protagonist of this play is a guy named, Arthur Kellog; he is a Jew who has changed his surname from Kellerman to fit into a WASPy mainstream. Are you suggesting that once you take that step to deny others, or even yourself, based on ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or other points of difference, that it's a significant and possibly irretrievable step?

Jamie Pachino: What I like about the character is he's this wonderful American combination of nave and ambitious. He wants things, and then when they start to come his way he's nave enough to believe he can manage the American public. He's a very American creature in that way. I think the name change is part of that. His inability to manage reality.

EDGE: If the day came when Trump suddenly whipped off the mask, so to speak, and said, "Ha ha! Fooled you, and you should all be ashamed!" -- would you be surprised?

Jamie Pachino: Okay, can I just tell you, that is my secret fondest wish!


EDGE: I think a lot of Americans are hoping for that, and we've seen people on the right insist that Trump is a Democratic plant of some kind.

Jamie Pachino: My husband (Lindsay Jones) had an interesting take on it, which is: Donald Trump hasn't changed at all. He's always been the person that talks the most, has the most opinions, and is surrounded by a bunch of yes-men. The way that he operates -- whatever sorts of double-dealing he does -- he's always done. Now there's just a microphone in front of him 24 hours a day. So, he hasn't changed; we just gave him a bigger [platform].

It reminds me of something I saw yesterday, a meme that was going around that said, "Racism hasn't changed; cameras have." It's the same thing. What's there has always been there. We're just made more aware of it because of where society is at right now.

EDGE:That ties into the notion that what we're seeing is the symptom of a much larger problem, a systemic dysfunction.

Jamie Pachino: Absolutely. I would agree with that 100 percent. Politically, it's complicated. I genuinely believe in the old message of, 'Democrats know how to govern, but Republicans know how to run.' The 'Crooked Hillary' moniker is a perfect example. It's so easy to latch on to, to feel that there might be enough truth in there that you can explore it. But compared to Trump, it's an absurd title. But it works. It works! And there's literally nothing that's been done to counter it, except facts, which the left loves. The left loves facts! 'Hey, what about the facts? Look at the facts!' But there's so little regard for the facts. There are enough people in the country right now who are saying, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, he's complicated and I have problems with him, but...' And they disregard facts. Facts don't matter.

EDGE: You were just saying Republicans have a talent for running for office, but not necessarily for governing once they get there. The title of the play, I feel, addresses this, and the title of the play comes from a book that the protagonist writes to appeal to a broad base of conservative readers. The book is called 'The Return to Morality.' It's tied into this wish to 'return' to a golden past. That's a wish and an argument we hear all the time from the right, but what does it mean? It's so nebulous it's almost meaningless. And yet it's so attractive.

Jamie Pachino: Yeah, and so ironic. 'Why can't we go back to the values we had in the '50s?' Well, let's look at the '50s for a second. There was rampant sexism, there was racism, why would we want to go back there? And if that sort of disenfranchisement is what makes people in power comfortable, then sure, 'let's go back!' There's this romanticism of another time, but peel it back first, and see what we're actually talking about. There was a late-night talk show segment about 'Let's Make America Great Again,' asking the 'man on the street' when was the last time it was great? The answers were both hilarious and terrifying. 'I think when they wrote the Constitution it was great.' Okay, well, slavery, but whatever. I love that the Democrats countered [Trump's slogan] with, 'It's great now. There's room for improvement, but it's great now.'

EDGE: Another nail the play hit son the head is something about the political process, and the social process, which is the way talking points are set out that sound reasonable, but the places they lead are problematic.

Jamie Pachino: Right, and the play was always meant to start with things that sound sane, and then you keep pushing it and pushing it until you're like, 'Wait -- how did we get here?' It was intended to be a Swiftian satire, and if it's written well, then each time it's a logical step away from reality. That's what should make it terrifying.

EDGE: You're a screenwriter as well as a playwright, and you write for both movies and TV. Do you have a sense that 'The Return for Morality' would be suited to a movie adaptation?

Jamie Pachino: It's funny you ask. In 2000, the play was optioned by Lionsgate, Trigger Street (Kevin Spacey's company), came on board to produce. I co-wrote the screenplay with writer Jeffrey Leiber, a director was attached, we went to casting, and then the whole thing fell apart.

Two years later, an independent billionaire who decided he wanted invest in movies gave us all the money and another director came on board, we went into casting -- and it fell apart again. The script went unproduced as a movie -- but it became a calling card, one of the things that really opened doors for me in Hollywood, and continues to draw people in to this day. Every time someone calls me, it's like, 'Did that ever get produced? I always loved that script.' And I wonder if it's the perfect time, or the worst time to have it back out there?


EDGE: I feel like television used to be more like theater, because it was produced so much more simply and cheaply: A few characters, not a lot of locations, a pretty straightforward presentation that wasn't terribly elaborate. And now television and theater have both become more like movies, but especially television -- the writing and the production have both become so much more sophisticated for television. Are these storytelling forms influencing each other?

Jamie Pachino: I think you have a lot more playwrights writing for television than even before, so I think there's a natural bleeding of one into the other. It's also raised the quality of the series produced. Structurally, though, the mediums are very different. You have to think mathematically for television, particularly when you're writing for network show, building up to commercial breaks. It's almost like going into multiple intermissions. But what's great is are also more jobs on scripted series than ever before, so there's a bigger chance you can stretch and test your skills in different ways.

EDGE: I've often wondered if the uptick in quality on television has to do with more playwrights now writing for TV shows.

Jamie Pachino: I think that's part of it. I also think it's because, starting about ten years ago, a lot of actresses were not getting work in features. Movies became either superhero events or these tiny indies, and there's very little of the sophisticated adult movie any more that people used to make. Now they only make them for awards season, and they're very shiny. And there are five actresses who do all of them. You see them every year at the Oscars.

But the other ones, who used to do all these grown-up movies, lost opportunities and turned to TV, espeicially as they grew older. A great example is Glenn Close, who opened the door by going on 'Damages.' Soon there were roles on television for actresses who had chops, so writers started creating material to draw those people because now people were interested.

Playwrights have also gravitated to TV because the writer is in charge on series in a way they're never in charge on a feature. It's much closer to play writing. The writer is the one on set responsible for the tone of the show, and the directors on TV series are jobbers. There's a different director every week, but there's always a writer or a showrunner on set, guiding the direction and the tone of the series. I think that's why playwrights are so attracted to it. Plus TV series can be much more character-based than features are. (And it pays!)

EDGE: I am amazed it's taken this play so long to make its way to New England and have its New England premiere only now.

Jamie Pachino: I know, I know!

EDGE: Have you worked in collaboration with the Titantic Theatre Company much, as they're prepared their production of 'The Return to Morality?'

Jamie Pachino: A little, yeah, they reached out to me a few times. Because the play is so topical, I've done passes on the script before, to get it up to date -- so I did an update for this election season. They also asked if they could cast one of the actors as a different gender, and I actually loved it. I did a little tweaking on that. I love being an available playwright.

EDGE: Will you be in Boston to see the production?

Jamie Pachino: I won't, unfortunately. I've been travelling back and forth between Chicago and Los Angeles with the show I'm writing for.

EDGE: They'll probably make a video of something for you.

Jamie Pachino: I would love that! I would love to see it. I've seen it done a number of times in a number of different cities, and it's always fun. It's always fun to be in the audience with that play-and would be amazing during this election season. I wish I could be in the middle of that.

EDGE: And it's such a different experience to seeing your work on screen.

Jamie Pachino: Once a play is up and running, I like to say it's a lot like bowling. You've let go of the ball, but your body still tries to steer it down the lane. You have no control over it anymore, because you let go of the ball, but that doesn't keep you from trying. It's a great learning experience.

EDGE: You could always be the one in the audience who laughs really loud or who starts clapping wildly to get the applause going.]


Jamie Pachino: I'm not that girl.

"The Return to Morality" runs Sept. 8 - 25 at the Central Square Theater.


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.