‘Our Man in Santiago’: A comedy about the overthrow of Salvador Allende?
Michael Van Duzer as Henry Kissinger, Steve Nevil as Richard Nixon / Charlie Mount

This is the world premiere of Our Man in Santiago—well, almost. According to director Charlie Mount, there were actually two performances of Santiago in March 2020, when COVID shut down Theatre West, along with just about everything else. Playwright Mark Wilding’s wild take on the 1973 coup in Chile is billed as “a comic spy thriller inspired by the true story of a spectacularly botched U.S. attempt to overthrow Chile’s democratically elected leader.”

Problem is, the coup was not “botched,” it was all too real. But all bets are off in comedy, right? The play finally debuted Sept. 24 and this critic is delighted to say that Wilding’s satire about the downfall of socialist President Salvador Allende is even timelier now than it would have been about 18 months ago.

This is because the recent resounding total defeat and humiliation of Washington in Afghanistan is shining a light on the sheer, utter imbecility of U.S. imperialism and lunacy of its foreign policy. The CIA played a devastating covert role in Afghanistan starting in 1979—only six years after the Agency helped topple Chile’s democratically elected government, as Wilding cleverly exposes.

I don’t want to dwell upon or give away plot points in this fast moving, rollicking one-acter. Suffice it to say that Santiago is cannily sandwiched by the CIA’s Daniel Baker testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee (another very topical part of the storyline, as four of Trump’s purported coup plotters have just been subpoenaed to testify before Congress). Baker (Nick McDow Musleh, a Theatre West regular) is a CIA agent reposted from that international “hot spot”—New Zealand—to carry out dirty tricks in Chile on that other 9/11, when General Pinochet, with a little help from his Yanqui friends, staged a bloody 1973 coup d’état that resulted in the mass murder, imprisonment, torture, “disappearance” of tens of thousands of Chileans.

Looking a bit like the middle-aged Hemingway, the bearded Jack Wilson (stage and screen actor George Tovar) is Baker’s conniving superior. A veteran CIA dirty trickster (who participated in 1961’s assassination of Congo’s lefty Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba), Wilson operates out of a Santiago hotel across from the presidential palace. As no espionage thriller worth its salt is complete without sex, Maria (Presciliana Esparolini, whose screen credits include All Rise) is a Chilean housekeeper for the hotel (or is she?).

Presciliana Esparolini, George Tovar, Nick McDow Musleh / Charlie Mount

Wilding shrewdly introduces the men who are literally behind the curtain (or wall) and the coup: Pres. Richard Nixon (Steve Nevil, whose credits include Lou Grant and touring in a one-man show about Jimmy Stewart), and Henry Kissinger, Tricky Dick’s National Security Adviser, who became Secretary of State only 11 days after Allende’s downfall. As Kissinger, Michael Van Duzer delivers a doozy of a performance and steals the show, exposing this mass murderer to be the buffoonish spawn of Satan posing as a Homo Sapiens. Van Duzer insightfully grasps Kissinger’s existential angst: He wanted to be a Nazi but, alas, was born Jewish. So, he compensated by committing genocide against Vietnamese, Argentines, Chileans, you name it. If Kissinger—the last surviving major member of Tricky Dick’s regime—dies before being hauled before an international tribunal for his countless crimes against humanity, it will be empirical proof that there is no god and life is unjust. May his death be shuttle diplomacy to the well-deserved hottest seat in hell his pal, the devil has surely reserved for him. (But don’t get me started!)

Mark Wilding has written TV comedies such as Ellen and dramas like Scandal, for which he was a head writer and executive producer. Santiago has the sensibility of a sitcom crossed by Scandal, with a number of switcheroos that this reviewer didn’t see coming. Wilding’s title drolly references Graham Greene’s 1959 Our Man in Havana, helmed by Carol Reed and starring Alec Guinness, and marks the triumphant reopening of Theatre West. Charlie Mount directs his ensemble with aplomb, and for those who enjoy sophisticated political satire, Our Man in Santiago is your man!

Our Man in Santiago runs Fri. and Sat. at 8:00 p.m. and Sun. at 2:00 p.m. through Oct. 24 at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Los Angeles 90068. For further information and tickets, see here. Theatergoers are, as of this writing, required to present proof of vaccination and wear masks (even though it’s not commedia dell’arte).


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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