IF YOU GET TO SEE JONATHAN REYNOLDS'S Stonewall Jackson's House, hang on to your shibboleths, those precious beliefs that we think are unshakable truths. Reynolds is the best shibboleth shaker to hop onto a stage in a long time. The stage is at New York's American Place Theatre, which for some shocked playgoers has become an Unamerican Place. I mean, a play in which a young Southern black woman begs a Midwestern white couple to take her home as a slave?
That's just one shot in the funniest and most outrageous play of the season, a withering fusillade of satire aimed at our comfortably congealed political orthodoxies. The young woman, LaWanda (Lisa Louise Langford), is a tour guide showing two white couples through the restored house in which Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson lived in Lexington, Va. LaWanda, dressed in period costume, recites her historical tidbits (""Here the ferocious general canned 99 heads of cabbage one afternoon'') but her stream-of-consciousness asides reveal her true feelings (""What am I doing in this house? Put a handkerchief on my head and call me Aunt Jemima!''). After several surreal switcheroos, the play morphs to a New York theater company (same cast) whose staff has just seen the very play we've been watching. Like the well-marinated liberals they are, they're shocked by its blatant Political Incorrectness. A scathingly funny donnybrook erupts between the theater types and Joe Rock, the playwright (R. E. Rodgers), lacerating the sanctimony and hypocrisy of the P.C. axioms: multiculturalism, megafeminism, victimization politics and more.
So is Reynolds a William F. Buckley of the boards? No. He's a defrocked liberal who once worked for Eugene McCarthy and voted for George McGovern. What turned him was the ""fascist'' rigidity of the lib camp. The first version of his play was given a reading at the sacred Actors Studio before sachems like Norman Mailer and Elia Kazan. ""It caused a monumental debate,'' says Reynolds. ""Mailer said, "If you put this play on you'll be lynched'.'' He set the play aside for several years, working in Hollywood on such classics as ""My Stepmother Is an Alien.'' Then he expanded it (basing his second act on the Actors Studio brouhaha) and sent it to several theaters. ""They were all militantly uninterested, even angry. One theater executive said, "This is the kind of play we should do, but I'm afraid'.''
The man who wasn't afraid is the founder of American Place Theatre, Wynn Handman, an archliberal (his son-in-law is former Clinton aide Harold Ickes). After several directors turned Handman down, Jamie Richards took it on and turned it on full force, with a gutsy cast led by the super- gutsy Langford. Reynolds is stunned by the positive critical reaction and the love-it-or-hate-it audiences who get deeply involved. He recalls growing up ""when off-Broadway was cantankerous and even Broadway involved your brain.'' He's brought brainy cantankerousness back with a vengeance.