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The Organization Man

Why is this tale of a criminally undervalued FBI agent told backward?

Denis Johnson's new play, Purvis, receiving its world premiere under the auspices of longtime Johnson collaborators Campo Santo, recounts episodes from the life -- and afterlife -- of one of the most fabled figures in the history of U.S. law enforcement, FBI agent Melvin Purvis. Purvis may not be as famous today as he was in the 1930s, when he earned folk hero status for the capture of high-profile hoodlums like bank robbers John Dillinger (famously apprehended by Purvis outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre in 1934), George "Baby Face" Nelson, and Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd. Nevertheless, Purvis' crime-defying résumé remains formidable: By the time of his resignation from the FBI in 1935, he had bagged more public enemies than any other agent in bureau history, a record that still stands.

The dredging-up of historical events is atypical of Johnson's and Campo Santo's work. Yet Purvis' story represents a theme close to the collaborators' hearts: the human -- and particularly American -- propensity for mythmaking. Just as Johnson, "the bard of the Greyhound bus station," as he has been dubbed, has turned drug addicts and hookers into smoke-stained idols (in works like the short-story collection Jesus' Son and the play Soul of a Whore), so Campo Santo has similarly mined the darker side of modern hero-worship (in productions like Octavio Solis' The Ballad of Pancho and Lucy and Jessica Hagedorn's Stairway to Heaven).

Purvis similarly explores society's insatiable and often dangerously self-delusional appetite for legend-spinning. In the play, heroes rise and fall according to political whim in a world that prizes stories spun around the lives of the famous and infamous above historical fact. To illustrate the point, Campo Santo's realization of Johnson's poetic text turns politicians and criminals alike into brilliantly imagined caricatures. Outlaws Dillinger, Floyd, and Nelson -- as depicted respectively by Danny Wolohan, Michael Shipley, and Delia MacDougall (who also directs) -- are exaggerated studies in film noir criminality, with their gun-toting, pussy-chasing, wiseguy ways. As Lyndon Johnson, Cully Fredricksen barks the iambic rhythms of the playwright's verse as if taking dictation in the middle of an electrical storm. Gangly and madcap in boxer shorts and tie, Fredricksen's version of the president could be described as an amalgam of all the characters played by Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove.

She's the Man: Director Delia MacDougall as George "Baby Face" Nelson, one of Purvis' more famous captures.
Jeff Fohl
She's the Man: Director Delia MacDougall as George "Baby Face" Nelson, one of Purvis' more famous captures.

Catherine Castellanos creates a superb and similarly larger-than-life portrait of J. Edgar Hoover, FBI bigwig and alleged obliterator of Purvis' career. (As the story goes, Hoover became jealous of Purvis' fame following the capture of Dillinger, and not only forced the FBI's top agent out, but also derailed his subsequent attempts to gain employment in the field. Purvis ended up making a living as head of the Post Toasties "Junior G-Man" radio campaign before killing himself on Feb. 29, 1960.) In a scene set in Hoover's home that explores rumors regarding his closeted homosexuality, Castellanos flaps around in tighty-whities, a silk kimono, and loud face-paint, looking like a sumo wrestler and gloating over Purvis' death.

What's different -- and ultimately problematic -- about Johnson and Campo Santo's latest exploration of the anatomy of mythmaking is its structure: The play runs backward. The first of the drama's seven scenes takes place at the White House in 1966 during Johnson's presidency; the last winds up at a Wisconsin hotel in May 1934 amid a showdown between Dillinger, Nelson, and the law.

Depicting events in reverse chronology is dramatically challenging. A play written backward tends to draw so much attention to its structure that there has to be a solid reason for presenting events out of sequence. Not that the device can't be used to great effect. In Harold Pinter's Betrayal, for example -- which opens with a meeting between two lovers some years after the end of an affair and finishes with their first erotically charged encounter nine years earlier -- the structure makes the story even more poignant: We see all too clearly the price paid for the characters' betrayal. Meanwhile, in Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, the backward storytelling employed in the second half of the drama about a brother and sister's attempt to discover the cause of their father's death underscores the play's thematic quest for truth and self-discovery.

I'm not at all certain what purpose structural regression serves in the case of Purvis, though. At a guess, the backward plotting is meant to draw attention to the evolution of myths in our culture. It may also highlight the play's many parallels between abuses of political power in earlier decades and our own. But these parallels are quite heavy-handed as it is; you don't need to contort the story to see the link between Hoover's desire to "tongue and probe the grossness in the soul of every enemy of the American dream" and contemporary fears about the erosion of privacy laws. Instead of creating an atmosphere of violent dramatic irony, as in Pinter and Greenberg, Johnson's backward structure only makes the story feel disjointed and meandering.

When carefully deployed, inverted plotting provides a powerful way of charting changing events over time. In Purvis, however, Johnson seems intent on showing us how things haven't really changed since Hoover's reign of terror. The only transformation that occurs while watching the play is our increasing understanding of Purvis (the understated Daryl Lozupone), a figure who -- unlike the criminals he helped catch and the politicians he served -- has virtually vanished from view.

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