Nobody in the world of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians seems all that interested in little things like gender, race, sexuality, party affiliation or class. In Nachtrieb’s cynical world, the defining characteristic anyone seems to recognize in anyone else is whether not that person is useful in the eternal, myopic quest for power. Ethics, morals, laws, or the ability to competently govern aren’t given much consideration either.
Sounds pretty bleak, huh? Nah. This is thrilling stuff. And hilarious to boot. Nachtreib’s got a first class instinct for satire and human weakness and he’s pretty good with a dick joke to boot. It has been a while since I laughed so hard and so often as I did at Woolly’s great, delightfully obscene production of this National New Play Network rolling premiere.
Dawn Ursula’s Francine is an ambitious, talented speechwriter without a major win on her résumé. In a last ditch effort for relevance she’s attached herself to Penelope Easter, a long-shot candidate for a vaguely defined position in the Nebraska state government. Easter’s a fun creation, a faux-folksy former professional roller skater who seemingly has gotten into politics to escape middle-age boredom. She’s Sarah Palin mashed up with Michele Bachmann by way of Amy Poehler.
Any production of The Totalitarians is going to live or die on the charisma of the actor playing Easter, given most of the plot and half the dialogue directly relies on her talent to compel the masses. Blessedly, Woolly has the great Emily Townley who can work a room with the best of them.
Nachtrieb blesses Easter with a critical central monologue any actor would kill to dig into, an extensive riff on stump speech nonsense, of which Townley nails every rhetorical flourish. It’s a big, expansive combination of nonsense bloviating and false humility. There’s a dark thrill here as Nachtrieb reveals that rhetorical skill too often trumps anything so banal as clarity, logic, or a workable plan for the future. It’s all capped off with Francine’s central linguistic coup as Penelope exultantly exclaims that only she can provide the good people of Nebraska with “freedom from fear”. An impossible, meaningless lie? Sure. But why let that get in the way of a good slogan? The speech instantly resurrects Easter’s moribund campaign, and she’s suddenly a media darling. It’s Power Corrupts 101, as Penelope and Francine’s few remaining ethical qualms quickly go flying out the window as party power brokers come a’knockin’.
Ursula and Townley are the main attractions here. The duo has chemistry to spare and Totalitarians’ best scenes are when the two ladies are allowed to riff on each other, Easter’s twisted charisma absorbing and twisting Jefferson’s talent and ambition. The two characters bring out the best in each other’s technique and the worst in each other’s morals. It’s a thrill to watch their power and corruption grow apace with every scene. Credit to director Robert O’Hara for keeping the pace brisk. Extra kudos for not being afraid to let his actors get REALLY intimate with audience sometimes.
Meanwhile, in a parallel plot of less impact, Francine’s doctor husband Jeffrey (a game Sean Meehan) becomes increasingly frustrated with his lack of influence within the family unit. Desperate for his own cause, he finds himself under the spell of his manic, compelling patient Ben (wiry Nicholas Loumos) with a revolutionary bent and a head full of conspiracy theories. The conspiracy theory stuff is the weakest part of Totalitarians, eventually (and predictably) exposing the Dark Family Secrets that seem de rigueur for every American play in this post-Osage County era.
What’s fascinating about Totalitarians, and really makes it a first-rate new play, is the relationship each character has to power. Easter’s lust for traditional political control is only the most obvious. Ben seeks power through the destabilization of current power structures. Jeffrey desperate seeks the power and stability of fatherhood. Francine seeks the power of subtle influence, getting off on the notion of molding minds anonymously, even as she increasingly forgets the reasons why she got involved in politics in the first. A desperate need for validation and success has sent her moral compass spinning wildly.
Closes June 29, 2014
Woolly Mammoth Theatre
641 D St NW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $50 – $87
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Totalitarians’ last 15 minutes or so go wildly, violently off the rails as the various subplots convene at a rally meant to double as Easter’s victory lap. The ensuing chaos is a gutsy extension of the play’s internal logic that proves the strengths of Nachtrieb’s (and the design team’s) conviction. Some, including my playgoing partner, found the drastic and violent change in tone disturbing. Your mileage may vary. I was equal parts thrilled and disgusted. Mostly thrilled.
The Totalitarians by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb . Directed by Robert O’Hara . Featuring Emily Townley, Dawn Ursula, Nick Loumos and Sean Meehan . Set design: Misha Kachman . Lighting design: Colin K. Bills . Costume design: Frank Labovits . Sound design: Lindsay Jones . Video design: Jaren Mezzocchi . Dramaturg: Kirsten Bowen . Production Stage Manager: William Cruttenden III . Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.
Riley Croghan . DCist
Chris Klimek . City Paper
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Lindsey Clark . Pamela’s Punch
Missy Frederick . Washingtonian
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
Roger Catlin . MDTheatreGuide
Amanda Gunther . DCMetroTheaterArts
Winifred Ann Frolik . WomanAroundTown