|'Rum and Coke' Siblings Create Their Own Family
by S. G. Freedman, The New York Times, March 4, 1986
|At the center of "Rum and Coke," Keith Reddin's dark comedy about the Bay of Pigs invasion, stand the
brother and sister played, to critical praise, by Peter MacNicol and Polly Draper. Amid the play's espionage
and geopolitics, these are siblings as they might have been imagined by a fan of Graham Greene, which
Mr. Reddin happens to be.
Jake Seward is a naive spy, his sister Linda a cynical reporter, and the pendular path of their lives
underlines the play's larger statements about ambition and disillusion. Jake goes from aiding in the
invasion to trying to leak word of it to the press, for which he is arrested; Linda, the self-righteous
outsider as a journalist, gives up a job at Time magazine to become Jackie Kennedy's press secretary.
The last time the audience sees the two together, Linda is visiting Jake is jail.
"A good game of tennis" is Mr. MacNicol's self-effacing description of their interaction, which raises sibling
rivalry to the level of political debate. Simply as an acting exercise, "Rum and Coke" demands that Mr.
MacNicol and Miss Draper perform credibly both as children teasing each other and as adults arguing the
ethics of armed intervention.
While Mr. MacNicol won the role of Jake relatively easily -- he flew in for the audition from Minneapolis,
where he was appearing in Emily Mann's "Execution of Justice," and read the script for the first time on
the plane -- it took the director Les Waters several rounds of readings to find a Linda who complemented
his Jake. His choice, Miss Draper, had also appeared in Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls" and Christopher
Durang's "Sister Mary Ignatius."
Invented a Father
"It was terribly important that they be believable as brother and sister," said Mr. Waters. "and Peter and
Polly could hit the balance between being serious and having a humorous side. The two of them, even in
the reading, could hit the way a brother and sister can share an inside joke and also wound each other in
the way only one's family can."
Mr. MacNicol and Miss Draper soon realized they shared the same kind of easy raspy voice and keening
laugh. They invented a father for Jake and Polly -- a lobbyist or Congressman with enough connections to
place his son in the diplomatic corps and his daughter at Time Inc. And during the final week of
rehearsals, when Miss Draper mistakenly delivered her line, "They made me feel special" as "They made
me feel speckled, " they had their inside joke.
Beyond their family bond, however, the characters of Jake and Linda ask different things of the actors.
Linda is the dominating older sister, equally capable of choosing Jake's clothes and of shooing him away
when he wants Time to publish a story exposing the planned invasion.
The dominating part came easily enough for Miss Draper, the elder of two children in her own family. "I
wouldn't be caught dead saying, 'I love you' to my little brother," she said. "All I do is tease him."
Rationalize the Actions
But portraying a social climber who snubs her brother at a time of crisis was something else again, and
Miss Draper had to rationalize Linda's actions in order to play them.
"It's hard to play a character whose natural inclinations aren't your own," she admitted. "People who saw
the play say to me, 'You sold out, you betrayed your brother,' But I felt everything Linda did was justified.
She loves glamour. She's opportunistic. When she can't go any further at Time, she goes to Jackie
Kennedy. She doesn't betray her brother. She comes to him when she realizes he's at a point of great
danger. She knows if the story is published, Jake will be found out as the source. She wants to protect
him. The bottom line is she loves him beyond words."
"An actor doesn't dare admit words like 'betrayal,'" Mr. MacNicol added, "because you have to play that
person every night. I think human beings are basically good and basically rebel against the idea of being
And if anything illustrates Mr. MacNicol's suitability for Jake, that sunny view of human nature does.
Indeed, after playing another innocent who comes to a shattering awareness of evil, as Stingo in the film
"Sophie's Choice," Mr. MacNicol worries about being typecast.
"If there's a role of someone who has his convictions trampled underfoot, I'm the first one they call," he
said. "Maybe I need to have a couple of bad marriages or get addicted to something."
The challenge of playing Jake was to make his ill-fated idealism plausible. It was doubly difficult because
Mr. MacNicol's own political memories are of the disillusioned Vietnam and Watergate years -- he was in
first grade when John F. Kennedy was assassinated -- and because "Rum and Coke" leaps between time
and location almost "psychedelically," to use Mr. MacNicol's word.
The effect is to fragment Jake's linear transition from believing in the Bay of Pigs invasion to attempting to
abort it. The disorder so frustrated Mr. MacNicol at the start that at one point in rehearsals he threw a $5
bill onstage and offered it to anyone who could tell him how, or why, he had gone from the Guatemalan
jungle to Manhattan's Oyster Bar in one scene.
Much of Mr. MacNicol's performance is etched in his face. By rolling his eyes downward and tightening his
cheeks, he can register Jake's tensions and disappointments as the invasion goes awry; by turning red
and popping out the veins on his forehead, looking like a man fighting off a stroke, he turns Jake's
attempt to smoke a cigar at a C.I.A. briefing into a moment of bleak hilarity.
"Believe it or not," Mr. MacNicol said, "I don't know anything yet about this vein thing, and I'm never
aware of it. One of my problems as an actor is that I carry comedy out to where it looks too real. I had an
older couple stop me on the subway one night after the show and say, 'Were you O.K. during that cigar
scene? We were going to get an usher."