Oswald, now making its West Coast premiere at the Write Act Repertory Theater, dramatizes the interrogation of Lee Harvey Oswald by Dallas Police Captain William Fritz during the chaotic 48 hours following the assassination of President Kennedy. LA playwright Dennis Richard has used publicly recorded statements (such as Oswald’s meeting with reporters) as well as Fritz’s handwritten notes of the interrogation, to present this behind-the-scenes view in as straightforward manner as possible.
This realistic approach allows for authenticity but very little dramatic tension. Recognizing that anyone seeing the play undoubtedly is familiar with the real story, much of the script is devoted simply to placing into a cohesive order all those fragmented names and images which have long ago become part of the American consciousness: Oswald in his white t-shirt and black slacks, his arrest in the Texas Theater, the shooting of Officer Tippet, the Texas School Book Depository, his Russian wife, his involvement in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, the mail-order rifle purchased under the pseudonym A.J. Hidell, the Zapruder film.
Much of the second act, in particular, appears to be simply building up to the famous image of Oswald’s “perp walk” which ended in his assassination at the hands of Jack Ruby, similar to how Sunday in the Park with George slowly constructs Georges Seurat’s familiar tableau. The uncredited costume designer gets a “tip of the hat” for the (nearly) faithful duplication of this iconic scene, but a “wag of the finger” for mistakenly outfitting Mr. Oswald in the grey cardigan sweater he wore during his press conference rather than the black crew-neck he was wearing when he was shot.
The play’s only attempt to delve into the motivation of the characters is Assistant DA Bill Alexander (played by a peripatetic David Lee Garver) periodically reminding Captain Fritz (a realistic albeit at times slurring P. David Miller) of the pressure the department and the city of Dallas are under to obtain a quick confession from the suspect. So although there is already talk of a conspiracy amongst both the media and the authorities even in these first few hours following the assassination, Fritz’s immediate priority is getting Oswald to admit to his role in the shooting, something he refuses to do, despite the mounting evidence against him. On the contrary, Oswald is resolute, even indignant, throughout. Andrew Perez, who shines in the title role, not only remarkably resembles Oswald, but pleads his innocence and ignorance so passionately the audience could easily believe he is simply being railroaded for his politics, but for the fact that the play had opened with a short scene of Oswald tearing off three rapid rifle shots from his sniper’s nest on the sixth floor of the book depository, removing all room for speculation.
The one surprising revelation in the script is the amount of automony the Dallas police department was given in running the investigation during those first two days. Although there are brief appearances by representatives of the CIA, FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspector, at least according to this account, the Dallas PD was allowed to interrogate Oswald virtually unimpeded, providing the one-on-one battle of wits and wills that the play seeks to play up. It is an interesting premise (a high stakes cat-and-mouse game played out between two individuals with the entire world watching and waiting), but because of far too many unnecessary scenes and characters, combined with substandard performances in the supporting roles (and director Richmond Shepard’s failure to rein them in), I believe Oswald will appeal mostly to the those individuals who have an unquenchable thirst for detective dramas or anything Kennedy.