Imperialist Imbecility: The Man Who Shot Salvador Allende?

This is the world premiere of Our Man in Santiago – well, almost. According to director Charlie Mount, there were actually two performances of Santiago in March 2020, when the you-know-what shut Theatre West (along with just about everything else) down. Playwright Mark Wilding’s wild take on the 1973 coup in Chile finally debuted Sept. 24 and this critic is delighted to say that Wilding’s satire about the downfall of socialist President Salvador Allende is even timelier now than it would have been about 18 months.

This is because the recent resounding total defeat and humiliation of Washington in Afghanistan is shining a light on the sheer, utter imbecility of US imperialism and lunacy of its foreign policy. The CIA played a devastating covert role in Afghanistan starting in 1979 – only six years after the Agency helped topple Chile’s democratically elected government, as Wilding cleverly exposes (see: American Amnesia: USA’s Afghan Original Sin Began 1979 – Not 9/11 – LA Progressive).

I don’t want to dwell upon or give away plot points in this fast moving, rollicking one-acter. Suffice it to say that Santiago is cannily sandwiched by the CIA’s Daniel Baker testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee (another very topical part of the storyline, as four of Trump’s purported coup plotters have just been subpoenaed to testify before Congress). Baker (Nick McDow Musleh, a Theatre West regular) is a CIA agent reposted from that international “hot spot” – New Zealand – to carry out dirty tricks in Chile on that other 9/11, when General Pinochet, with a little help from his Yanqui friends, staged a bloody 1973 coup d’état that resulted in the mass murder, imprisonment, torture, “disappearance” of tens of thousands of Chileans.

Looking a bit like the middle-aged Hemingway, the bearded Jack Wilson (stage and screen actor George Tovar) is Baker’s conniving superior. A veteran CIA dirty trickster (who participated in 1961’s assassination of Congo’s lefty Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba), Wilson operates out of a Santiago hotel across from the presidential palace. As no espionage thriller worth its salt is complete without sex, Maria (Presciliana Esparolini, whose screen credits include All Rise) is a Chilean housekeeper for the hotel (or is she?).

Wilding shrewdly introduces the men who are literally behind the curtain (or wall) and the coup: Pres. Richard Nixon (Steve Nevil, whose credits include Lou Grant and touring in a one-man show about Jimmy Stewart) and Henry Kissinger, Tricky Dick’s National Security Adviser, who became Secretary of State only 11 days after Allende’s downfall. To my mind, as Kissinger, Michael Van Duzer delivers a doozy of a performance and steals the show, exposing this mass murderer to be the buffoonish spawn of Satan posing as a Homo sapien that he really is. Van Duzer insightfully grasps Kissinger’s existential angst: He wanted to be a Nazi but, alas, was born Jewish. So, he compensated by committing genocide against Vietnamese, Argentines, Chileans, you name it. If Kissinger – the last surviving major member of Tricky Dick’s regime – dies before being hauled before an international tribunal for his countless crimes against humanity, it will be empirical proof that there is no god and life is unjust. May his death be shuttle diplomacy to the well-deserved hottest seat in hell his pal, the devil, has surely reserved for him. (Don’t get me started!)

Mark Wilding has written TV comedies such as Ellen and dramas like Scandal, which he was a head writer and executive producer of. Santiago has the sensibility of a sitcom crossed by Scandal, with a number of switcheroos that this reviewer didn’t see (in)coming. Wilding’s title drolly references Graham Greene’s 1959 Our Man in Havana, helmed by Carol Reed and starring Alec Guinness, and marks the triumphant reopening of Theatre West. Charlie Mount directs his ensemble with aplomb, and for those who enjoy sophisticated political satire, Our Man in Santiago is your man!

Our Man in Santiago runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through Oct. 24 at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Los Angeles, CA 90068. See: Theatergoers are, as of this writing, required to present proof of vaccination and wear masks (even though it’s not commedia dell’arte).

Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Senator Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in Cinema at Manhattan’s Hunter College and is an L.A.-based film historian/critic who co-organized the 2017 70th anniversary Blacklist remembrance at the Writers Guild theater in Beverly Hills and was a moderator at 2019’s “Blacklist Exiles in Mexico” filmfest and conference at the San Francisco Art Institute. Rampell co-presented “The Hollywood Ten at 75” film series at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.