Politics both sexual and presidential

Politics is famously the art of the possible, but our thinking about it is often of the magical kind. A woman in the White House? We can only conjure the reverberations of that historic first in our private playhouse of the mind. The Machiavellian backroom workings of a presidential campaign? We're left to speculate, with the unsolicited help of a Babel of pundits, or to extrapolate from selectively remembered biographies.

Playwright Karl Gajdusek attempts to put both scenarios onstage in "Fair Game," in which a female presidential candidate's last-minute campaign maneuvers involve - are you sitting down for this? - compromise and manipulation. But the playwright's heart isn't quite in the imaginative exercise. Instead, the lightly bumpy campaign of Karen Werthman (Joy Franz), a governor who took over the position after her husband died (like Missouri's ex-Senator Jean Carnahan), seems a mere backdrop for Gajdusek's main theme: the tortured ethics of student-teacher hanky-panky.

It's an odd focus, but there are some mildly crackling scenes and uncomfortable insights in this subplot, which plays a bit like the illegitimate child of "Oleanna" and "Lolita." When a nubile Princeton undergrad (Sarah-Doe Osborne) challenges the practiced pessimism of her glib poli-sci professor, Simon (Chris Henry Coffey), she gets his attention - and soon his bed and house key. Political arguments freighted with sexual gamesmanship ensue; grades get traded for sex. It can only end in tears.

Only it doesn't. This actionable bit of educational misconduct turns out instead to be a roadblock to Gov. Werthman's path to power, because Simon happens to be her son. We're asked to believe that a case of sexual harassment, once-removed, might be enough to derail a presidential bid. Insert a Clinton joke here, if you'd like - Gajdusek certainly doesn't. Nor does he seriously reckon with the ways that the politics of personal destruction have changed since the Starr Report.

Kicking furiously at this implausible obstacle is the play's would-be main character: the tightly wound campaign manager, Miranda (Caralyn Kozloski). She's a recognizable type - the power-suited tigress whose strategic reach exceeds her ethical grasp - but at least she's active, anxious and driven, next to a cast of low-temperature characters who mostly pace and preach. Under Andrew Volkoff's fitful direction, Kozloski plays the part unevenly - and never subtly - but she's always watchable.

Most of "Fair Game" is Aaron Sorkin Lite: fancy-sounding, fast-talking wonkery masking a bone-headed plot. As the compromised professor, Coffey has the studied, squinty folksiness of a TV newscaster, except for a few tense moments when Osborne, as the angling coed, catches him out.

As the candidate, Franz has all the gravitas of a faintly peeved sitcom mom. It's telling, given the play's progressive premise, that her twangy, avuncular Republican opponent (Ray McDavitt) is far more convincing and, it must be said, presidential.

FAIR GAME. By Karl Gajdusek, Directed by Andrew Volkoff. Through Sept. 7 at Theatre Row's Lion Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., Manhattan. Tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit Seen Saturday.

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