In 1970, the Nixon administration enlisted the CIA in a covert operation to overthrow Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of Chile, who ultimately died in a violent military coup in 1973, led by right-wing Chilean army general Augusto Pinochet and secretly supported by the US government. In 1974, Columbian writer and later Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez wrote a detailed exposé of the US involvement, published in Harper’s Magazine and read by Emmy-nominated writer and producer Mark Wilding, who, then still in high school, saved a copy of the article. The idea for a play inspired by that “loony, misguided venture” percolated in his mind for decades before his political farce Our Man in Santiago had its world premiere at Theatre West in LA in 2020. The witty and provocative dark comedy is now playing a limited NYC engagement at AMT Theater.
Presented in the format of a go-back story, the show opens with the spotlight on CIA agent Daniel Baker testifying in a special Congressional investigation into his knowledge of, and participation in, the Chilean coup. As he answers a series of voice-over questions by his unseen interrogators, the lights go up and the scene shifts to a hotel room in Santiago, 1973, where his memories are brought to life by a spot-on five-person cast (reprising their roles from the LA debut), directed with an eye on the absurdity, and the lessons never learned, by Charlie Mount (who also helmed the Theatre West production).
Played with perfect comedic timing by Nick McDow Musleh, Baker, we soon see, is an erudite Yale graduate who double majored in History and Comparative Literature but is inexperienced in espionage. Having only served previously in New Zealand (an accent he laughably nails), he speaks no Spanish (though out of respect for the culture, pronounces the names of the country and the president correctly – unlike his disdainful superiors), hilariously bungles loading his gun, and is clueless as to why he’s there or what his assignment is.
He finds out from his hardened and ambitious, rude and unlikable CIA boss Jack Wilson – the spot-on George Tovar – who chose the unseasoned Baker for the dangerous assignment and gives telephone updates to Nixon and his National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who appear in the Oval Office, in side-splitting impersonations by Steve Nevil and Michael Van Duzer respectively. Their wildly conflicting principles, backgrounds, personal motivations, and egos put them at odds about everything, from the poetry of Robert Frost to the preference for Coke or Pepsi, and most significantly (well, maybe the cola debate was the most significant to Baker), the moral justification for the Chilean coup and who should get the credit, and prestigious promotion, for taking out Allende.
Central to the story is the excellent Presciliana Esparolini as Maria, the hotel maid, whose struggles with the English language result in a funny stream of unintended sexual innuendos and whose presence in the room triggers uproarious twists and turns in the plot and upends the characters’ plans for both the present mission and their future lives and careers, and dramatically changes their inter-relationships and status.
The artistic team provides a quality design that supports and enhances the action. Jeff G. Rack’s hotel-room set includes French doors that open to a balcony above the key activity on the street and a back wall that opens to Nixon and Kissinger on the phone in the White House. Costumes by Mylette Nora define the characters and their positions, sound and lighting by Mount (with original LA lighting design by Yancey Dunham) set the style and moods of both a classic spy thriller and the military incursion, and fight direction by Joe Nassi and gun wrangling by Bruce Dickinson are believably staged and well executed by the top-notch cast, in a smart and humorous political farce and morality lesson that will leave you laughing, while contemplating the overwhelming allure of power, whatever the cost.
It should be noted that, following the coup, the brutal, oppressive, and corrupt Pinochet became de facto dictator of Chile in a decades-long rule, and was eventually indicted on multiple international charges of genocide, terrorism including murder, and human rights violations. It was later discovered that he was also involved in millions of dollars of money laundering over a period of 25 years. Thanks to Mark Wilding and company for giving us an entertaining and enlightening view of one of the most disgraceful episodes in post-modern American history, through the creative, rather than the destructive, medium of theater.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.
Our Man in Santiago plays through Friday, October 28, 2022, at AMT Theater, 354 West 45th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $49-79, plus fees), go online. Everyone is required to wear a mask inside the building.