Jon Robin Baitz fairly sprays the audience with lines that atta-tack-tack like an AK47. You hear the moans of each hit and then explosion after explosion of laughter. In this way, his play Vicuña serves, as many plays have done down throughout history, as a necessary bloodletting from society’s current ills.
Billed as a Trump-inspired satire, the story puts an Iranian tailor and his Harvard-educated immigrant apprentice in the direct path of a crass real estate tycoon, who is running for president and determined to mow down anything in his way. But as in all good dramatic construction, they need each other. Specifically, the candidate wants a suit, a great vicuña power suit for his last presidential debate. The tailor confesses at one point his eyes are going, so maybe his need lies in making one last classic suit. (But as you will learn if you head over to H Street and Atlas Performing Arts Center, great suits sometimes have a life of their own!)
In the creation of a Savile-Row rung of men’s tailoring, the design team on H Street has succeeded in quite the gentrifying makeover and created a luxurious and altogether fitting world. Debra Booth’s set is well complemented by Brandee Mathies’ smart costumes and all washed beautifully by Alberto Segarra’s lighting choices. I can only add Karl Lundeberg’s sophisticated and powerful score and sound design amped the whole event up several well-conceived decibels.
It’s interesting to note that the play was first written and performed out in L.A. during the 2016 campaign season. Some of the work has that kind of smart, topical if facile comic television writing – like a good SNL skit. Clearly, Baitz was on a roll and inspired to come out swinging.
But much of the play and the sure comedic directing by Robert Egan have wisely avoided cheap parody. The main character, Kurt Seaman, superbly delivered by John de Lancie (Star Trek and Breaking Bad) makes this Trumped-up character surprisingly articulate and multi-layered. The language makes him smartly dangerous not dangerously dumb. Maybe this helps those of us who never saw it (or maybe did see it ) coming understand a little how many Americans could in fact gamble on their candidate becoming somewhat presidential once in the White House.
Don’t get me wrong, de Lancie fully demonstrates that Seaman is unable to be reined in, much like his progenitor, to the chagrin of his daughter-manager, Srilanka. (Yes, the daughter is reportedly named after the country in which she was conceived on one of daddy’s real estate ventures.) Laura C. Harris delivers a convincing portrait of a girl conflicted between her loyalty to her father and her mounting grievances against a man of such egregious racism, sexism, anti-immigration inclinations, and religious intolerance.
Her character has its own clear dramatic arc, spurred on by her attraction to and sparring with Amir, and is surprisingly sympathetic. Her eyes help us read her thoughts that dart from shining and hopeful to grow cloudy, troubled, and even shamed.
Vicuña and The American Epilogue
closes December 3, 2o17
Details and tickets
Regrettably, Haaz Sleiman never rises to earn a hero’s allegiance. His character’s immigrant status and the opportunities availed him have put him in a catbird seat to the social inequalities and injustices in our society, and his voice clearly reflects Baitz’ own sympathies. Sleiman’s acting suffered somewhat from a kind of flatness and vocal compression, which, while it might go undetected in his roles on the small screen, made his hoarse delivery in live theater ride on two notes.
Brian George as the tailor Anselm, on the other hand, delivers a performance that stands out as the most compelling and nuanced character on stage. Every detail of his character work has been thoughtfully worked out. His deft, expressive gestures, the way his fingers caress the air, show a man who works and reads the world through his hands. He raps the back of young Amir’s head in irritation but clearly loves and admires him. He takes pride in his workmanship and in dressing even monsters like Idi Amin. Thus he has for survival’s sake stayed out of politics. But there’s fire in his eyes, and he manages at last to “protest” in his own ingenious way.
One of the funniest and most over-the-top successes of the evening comes with the character of Senator Kitty Finch-Gibbon, played spot-on as a blonde helmet-haired power broker by local actress Kimberly Schraf. As head of the Republican National Committee, she is mightily nervous at the thought of losing her party’s power, and her overwrought self has had to medicate with periodic nips at the bar and antidepressants as suppositories, before trying to buy our man Seaman to bow out.
Having this play and this character in front of a Washington audience is ‘eat-local’ delicious. We know these people! The stakes get high, and Schraf grows hot under the collar. She swoops down to pounce on Seaman and delivers a tirade of invectiveness that hysterically evokes how ‘her people’ loathe their leader with even more antipathy than those on the Left do. The monologue is Baitz at his best, prescient and with humor so edgy that it pushes all boundaries. It shows without a doubt that these people are ready to blow!
The evening might have remained in a satirical vein, because as we have come to realize on both sides of the aisle what’s not to satirize in the “adult day care” that passes for America’s seat of power. Wisely, however, the creative team and the powers that guide Mosaic’s mission have compelled Baitz to add an epilogue if only to update the mood and tell the tale of the way we live now.
The American Epilogue
Its premise looks into the future twelve-years ahead and is written in an altogether different tone. Suddenly, the evening slows down, and there is something both sobering and poignant about each of the character’s sharing what has happened to them in the intervening years. The scene touches on the fallout that liberals see happening in so many areas globally while many others are waking up to the harsh reality at home in their feelings of betrayal and a dream deferred.
This final scene allows us some deeper reflection, and I think subsequent performances, along with Mosaic’s commitment to extend the theatrical experience through post-show conversations, will serve as a rallying call. As Amir says at the end, directly addressing the audience, “What are you going to do?”
Through laughter the play should energize us (for despair is indeed a luxury we can’t afford,) and if Producing Artistic Director Ari Roth has his way the show also challenges us to move our awareness into action.
Vicuña and The American Epilogue by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Robert Egan. Scenic Design by Debra Booth. Costume Design by Brandee Mathies. Lighting Design by Alberto Segarra. Sound Design by Karl Lundeberg. With John de Lancie, Brian George, Laura C. Harris, Kimberly Schraf, and Haaz Sleiman. Produced by Mosaic Theater Company. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.