A Play About the JFK Assassination: ‘Witnessed by the World’ by Ronnie Cohen and Jane Beale
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is perhaps the most written-about event of the 20th century, with over 800 books alone devoted to parsing the details of the how and why of the assassination and the alleged subsequent cover-up. Some books justify the evidence produced in the Warren Commission Report, which found Lee Harvey Oswald to be Kennedy’s sole murderer. Many reputable writers and investigators, including the 1960s District Attorney of New Orleans, James Garrison, meticulously and logically disputed the Warren Report’s conclusions.
The mainstream media ridicules “conspiracy theorists,” who put forth the idea that a cabal of conspirators were responsible for Kennedy’s murder and wanted him “out of the way” for various political reasons. Witnessed by the World written by Ronnie Cohen and Jane Beale and directed by Karen Carpenter provides an interesting spin on the assassination and the “conspiracy theory” decriers. It is informative, taking into consideration that there are those in subsequent generations who know little about the assassination and the major players connected to it.
The playwrights have cleverly avoid didacticism and preachiness. They posit information about the assassination through dialogue between an older journalist, Joan Ross (an excellent Charlotte Maier), enthralled with the research she has done about the assassination, and the younger, uninterested, uninformed screenwriter, Ira Basil (Max Gordon Moore in a good counterpoint), who is working with her on a writing project. Information is also revealed through the play’s developing action. We follow Joan and learn about the assassination as she channels information from her leads into discussions with the screenwriter, a friend, and her sources.
At the outset, the play shows the black and white TV clip of the Jack Ruby shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, which was the first live mass media murder viewed by millions. (There were no warning ratings preventing young children from watching the live coverage and later the incessant replaying of Oswald’s painful collapse after the bullet did its work.) We are in shock as the viewers at the time were in shock seeing Ruby conveniently smash the possibility that any trial of Kennedy’s alleged killer would take place.
If Ruby was a hero, performing the role of Oswald’s executioner, he was not released for his “good deed.” The mysterious incongruity is that Ruby received the death penalty after his first trial. This was overturned in a Texas appellate court. He was waiting for a second trial when he died of cancer in a Dallas hospital. Had he been threatened not to disclose the mystery of his relationships and background connections to mobsters, the CIA, Oswald and others? Though he was interviewed by Dorothy Kilgallen toward the end, Kilgallen never lived to “blow the lid off the JFK assassination” as she said she would.
Cohen and Beale explore these mysteries and others as Joan investigates Ruby’s early background and teen years to help Ira Basil finish a screenplay about Jack Ruby and the mystery surrounding his ties to organized crime and visits to Cuba. Though Ira warns Joan that she must not write about or investigate Ruby’s connection to the JFK assassination, Joan on her own recognizance pieces together information she learns from Jack Ruby’s sister, Eileen Kaminsky (an exceptional and believable Lois Markle). After Joan and Eileen become close, Eileen gives Joan a box of items which no one knows about. Ruby had given them to Eileen for safekeeping. Each item is a potential clue, a possible missing puzzle piece that Joan can use to create a logical picture of Ruby, his ties to organized crime figures and answers to the questions about why he killed Oswald.
As Joan’s investigation proceeds, she is spurred on with potential answers about the assassination. We are interested and happy to go along for the ride which she keeps hidden from Ira. However, when Ira discovers information which throws Joan’s character into muddy waters, we can see the headlines above her name “conspiracy theory nut,” a twist which is panicking Ira. He manages to continue working with her because he has grown closer to her and for personal self-interest: he will continue to receive the information she has given him about Ruby. They work well together on the screenplay which appears to portend lucrative possibilities.
In the midst of the Ira-Joan scenario, there is a detour down a dark road. Joan confides in friend Aaron Spencer (an appropriate and capable Bob Ari) about the screenplay and her secret investigation of Ruby’s mob connections, and in turn, the JFK assassination. Aaron, who is confronting financial difficulties and is forced to make some debt arrangements with shady mob characters, is told by Joe Capano (a smiling, insidious Joe Tapper) that he knows an old “uncle” in the criminal network who knew Ruby. Aaron shares the information with Joan, who tries to arrange a meet up with this “uncle,” to confirm the final threads of logic she is sewing together about how Ruby was connected to the JFK assassination. These threads tie in Ruby’s connections to mob figures, Sam Giancana, Carlos Marcello, Santo Trafficante and others.
Aaron discourages Joan about the meet up, but it has been arranged by Joe Capano who tells Aaron that Uncle Tony is anxious to talk to Joan. Joan is thrilled after years of research and hard work in overcoming the resistance of recalcitrant sources. She is exuberant because she knows she is going to be able to blow the lid off the Kennedy assassination with the final confirmation of testimony from Uncle Tony.
The play is a vital go-see-it for a number of reasons. It will be informative for those who are unfamiliar with the Kennedy assassination and the time period. The play provides a quick and dirty clip sheet of one element of the possible assassination conspirator network that will not be found through mainstream media, except the History Channel offerings. Highlighted is information which includes a growing body of research about the history of our government’s political machinations during the cold war and the extent that the intelligence community was willing to go to insure the US retained the upper hand against Communist leaders. The play is well constructed and keeps the audience engrossed about a period of our history which is crucial to understanding the present.
However, the play does manifest issues; some of the contrivances are problematic. The contrivance of character and dialogue to get out the information (an older journalist and a younger screenwriter unfamiliar and uninterested about the assassination) works because it is subtle and well crafted into the conflict and action of Joan’s investigation of Ruby. We can overlook it because it melds seamlessly with relaying the background information to the audience. But the character complication, that Aaron happens to be in financial trouble and just happens to be involved with mobsters who knew Ruby and who are still alive, is less seamlessly written into the play’s action.
Tthe contrivance of the naivete of Joan’s character cannot be overlooked. We understand that she is a brilliant investigative reporter who is putting the pieces together and who knows the score about the individuals connected with the assassination. We believe she is a hard hitting and uncompromising journalist and a thorough researcher. Her ingenuousness with her sources, for example overlooking the shady character of who she is dealing with seems incongruous and is not credible.
Would the playwrights have created even more tension…would the play have been more striking if Joan implies she knows the risks involved, but takes them anyway? Would this be a more heroic Joan, one more in keeping with who she is? If, yes, then, the conclusion would be more tragic, more appropriate, and of course, more ironic. Though the acting is excellent and the ensemble work holds together beautifully, it is a lot to ask of Charlotte Maier to reconcile the contradictions of Joan as a naive yet hard-hitting journalist. It is not as if her naivete has been intimated throughout the play as a tragic flaw. It is artificial, contrived. If Joan was portrayed as one who knows she is taking a risk but she does it anyway because there is a moral imperative…the truth must be revealed? This portrayal is logical, noble and in keeping with Joan’s character. It elevates the play to a greater reality. How many have risked their lives to tell the truth?
The great tragedy in the assassination of JFK is that the only justice the assassins, and there were more than one as the Senate Select Committee designated (which later puppets attempted to decry) is that justice was never served. The country, though never above corruption and villainy which our past is filled with, suffered many blows afterward. The most crucial misery was that the indomitable spirit of the American people was dampened. HOWEVER, IT WAS NOT EXTINGUISHED. If this is what was intended, and if the MO was to increase profits and gain lucre, then so be it. The perpetrators did that. They have reaped their reward. And the full weight of their actions will fall on their heads.
The play, which enjoyed its New York Premiere at 59E59 Theaters is a reminder that the JFK case, despite what one apologist wrote, IS NOT CLOSED. IT WILL NEVER, EVER BE CLOSED. SO THERE IS NO “CASE CLOSED” ABOUT THE JFK ASSASSINATION, no matter how much one may assert that we should all just not think about it. The magic bullet theory which fatuously has been used as proof that only Oswald was the killer and that there was NO conspiracy is, in fact, THEORY. Theory is not fact; it is hypothesis. Once the argument is raised to “belief” then theories are allowed in and by their nature, are uncertain. The best we can say is it is a 50% / 50% chance there was a conspiracy. The true perpetrators have gotten away with murder, probably not for the first time. Hopefully, for the last.
The review first appeared on Blogcritics.
Posted on March 3, 2014, in NYC Download, NYC Theater Reviews and tagged 59E59 Theaters, conspiracy theories, Jane Beale, JFK Assassination, Off Broadway, presedential assassinations, Ronnie Cohen, Witnessed by the World. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.