For the average Joe there’s typically not much excitement in the world of televised political debates. The most drama the audience can hope for is a candidate forgetting to wear the obligatory American flag lapel pin. If we’re really lucky, we might get a comedic Internet meme out of the deal (remember those “binders full of women”?)
Rest assured, writer/director Luke Mullan’s Up for Debate brings way more laughs than your average political debate, as well as more pressing concerns for the audience. Surely that candidate isn’t planning to actually use that shotgun he’s toting, right?
This one-act play stages a debate between three candidates seeking to represent Idaho in the US Congress. There’s John W. Wallace, a Reaganite Republican in a red power tie who believes that bad puns are the key to connecting with the “younger generation.” Then there’s Kevin Sampson, a Zach Galifianakis-type member of that millennial generation who has temporarily quit playing Call of Duty in his mother’s basement in order to represent the Libertarian party.
Finally there is protagonist Ivan Chekovitch, who represents the “Socialist Democratic Republican People’s Party for the Cure.” Or, at least, he would be speaking for that party if he could stop having musical flashbacks of his formative years in Soviet Russia. All three candidates are reined in (barely) by a straight man moderator played with just the right amount of exasperation by Phillip Kiley.
Up for Debate
Written and directed by Luke Mullan
Music by Brian Claeys
Details and tickets
These are not characters so much as caricatures. As Chekovitch, Jack Cashmere puts on a Boris Badenov accent and refers to himself in the third person. Republican candidate Wallace kisses babies and attempts to spout Bible verses. John Leach’s amusingly lackadaisical Sampson plays to the stereotype of millennials as self-absorbed and utterly clueless about history. There’s no character depth here, but also no real need for it. The stereotypes alone are enough to keep the audience laughing as the debaters address political hot topics such as NSA surveillance, Social Security, food stamps, and the Affordable Care Act. And if the candidates’ reactions occasionally feel trite and unoriginal, that’s to be expected: the show’s blurb did promise “hot takes.”
Have I mentioned the musical numbers? Although the show is in fact properly billed as a comedy rather than a musical, it includes several musical moments, most notably Joseph Cooney’s rousing opening number, “I’d-A-Go to Idaho.” The talented Brian Claeys provides a lively piano soundtrack that underscores and often provides the punchline to the play’s jokes.
The young cast—most are recent graduates of Gonzaga College High School—is enthusiastic and fun to watch, although there were a few noticeable breaks in character and moments where the comedic timing didn’t gel. There are numerous running gags, many of which work (what DO you call citizens of Idaho?), but some that take a moderately funny bit too far. A recurring joke about a train accident eventually went off the rails (sorry, couldn’t resist). There are moments when Mullan has written and staged absurdity above and beyond the play’s already zany standard. During those moments the play feels overblown and too ridiculous, jolting the audience from what had previously been a humorous, sometimes hilarious, ride.
Up for Debate holds a funhouse mirror up to the nature of politics. Check it out, if only to reassure yourself that our real-life candidates are not (quite) that crazy.