WATERTOWN, Mass. — The right wing, it seems, will always need the National Endowment for the Arts — as much as it wants to destroy it. The NEA has been a handy horse to kick, one that seems to symbolize a left wing run amok. Imagine taking those hard-earned tax dollars and giving it to a woman to smear chocolate over herself or to a man to denigrate Jesus.
But watching Lee Blessing’s “Chesapeake” at the New Repertory Theatre black box (through Dec. 16), I started to wonder if maybe it’s the left that needs right-wing blowhards to justify a certain self-righteousness about the importance of federal funding for the arts.
The 1999 play is a cute if inconsequential comedic crowd-pleaser, considering that theater crowds are overwhelmingly liberal. The story centers on a female performance artist, Kerr, who is targeted by a right-wing congressman running for senator who rails about her nude theater piece. He wins and she plans to kidnap his dog and make the kidnapping a work of art, and that’s when the second-half fun really begins. In the tradition of performance art, it’s a one-woman show.
It’s hard to go much beyond that without giving away the second-half twist, but “Chesapeake” is an unapologetic defense of public funding of the arts and, conversely, an attack on those who would deny it. Art, it is rightly said in the play, charts undiscovered country, just as Lewis and Clark did.
By that standard, “Chesapeake” is not a work of art. It takes us nowhere we haven’t been in the 35-year culture wars as it preaches to the choir.
But it is an entertainment, the difference being that entertainment doesn’t have the mandate to take us to different places. Blessing (“A Walk in the Woods”) is a clever writer and there are some very funny satirical pokes at the right and some witty asides about the way we love our dogs and vice versa.
Bringing all that home is Georgia Lyman, who turns in a terrific performance as Kerr, and a cur or a cad or two. She has an enthusiasm for the material, evoked by an eager smile or a galloping run across the stage. She always keeps the play’s head above water even as it gets drawn out over two acts. Kudos also to director Doug Lockwood and Deb Sullivan for her smart lighting and simple set design.
So by all means go to be entertained, particularly by the satirical whimsy of the second half. But you won’t need a theatrical GPS. You know this territory already.