“Even monsters need clothing,” says the bespoke tailor Anselm, an Arab Jew and immigrant, defending why he will sew a vicuña suit for a Republican presidential candidate whom his intern Amir, a first-generation Iranian American, finds deplorable and dangerous. The fictional candidate is a thinly disguised proxy for a certain wannabe winner with an evident emperor’s absence of clothes. So the central comedic metaphor in Jon Robin Baitz’s adroit political allegory—dressing a man of no scruples for success—packs a caustic punch from the get-go.
And judging from audience response on opening night, the aftershocks of that punch are what make Vicuña & The American Epilogue an invigorating crowd pleaser—at least here in blue-state DC. For though the storyline of Vicuña centers on dressing up a future prez, the most satisfying sections of the script are about dressing him down.
There are five characters in the play: The tailor Anselm (Brian George); the intern Amir (Haaz Sleiman); the candidate himself, here named Kurt Seaman (John De Lancie); the candidate’s daughter and campaign manager, Srilanka (Laura C. Harris), and the chairwoman of the RNC, Senator Kitty Finch-Gibbon (Kimberly Schraf). And Baitz has given three of them some of the most exquisite insult speeches this side of William Shakespeare.
Anselm is not one of them. Anselm would never diss a client, nor likely ever speak truth to power. “You win by silence and compliance,” he counsels his intern Amir.
And Seaman has so much vaingloriosity to spew that he more than deserves being the butt of Baitz’s delicious derision. “There is only one American dream now,” he says. “And it is to simply take what is left…. Take whatever you can, take that which is not nailed down before someone else does.” Seaman has a moral compass so lacking in empathy and introspection it might as well be a rock.
But oh my what invective the other three characters get!
AMIR: He’s sort of a wonder to behold, like a Kracken or a four-headed goat glowing green outside a nuclear reactor.
AMIR: He is like a giant machine that makes evil disgusting bloated nasty donuts. Anything hateful anyone throws at him, he turns it into a batter to make a donut! And then he makes it. And spits it back out.
SRILANKA [to her father]: You made me your campaign manager because you need one person to tell you the truth. Here’s the truth, father, you have become an unregulated force, careening between contradictory positions, wracked by a lack of sleep, and fueled by junk food and coffee, saying whatever comes into your head at any moment….
AMIR [to Seaman]: Given your trajectory, it is quite clear that common decency is actually detrimental to your ascendancy. So I would keep your daughter around — as even sociopaths need canaries in their coal-mines.
The speeches Finch-Gibbon gets are the most scathing, and in Schraf’s showstopping performance they fire at Seaman like a strafing:
FINCH-GIBBON: There is a sense that you are ill…. The people who work at the Defense Department and in the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff … have let it be known that you present certain very knotty obstacles to the chain of command in that you are generally speaking considered stark raving mad.
FINCH-GIBBON: You are unpredictable and shallow. And in politics, given the state of the world today, being unpredictable and shallow is deadly…. On a personal note, let me say this — you and your frivolous campaign, one fueled by the capriciousness deep within your dark, decaying and very shallow husk of a soul — have simply broken my heart.
I share this foretaste of the fusillade that’s in store when one sees this astonishingly incisive and timely play to make a point about how unusually Vicuña plays in the mind: Vicuña takes us into and out of itself over and over again. To watch it is constantly to be reminded of the real-world tragifarce that the action onstage keeps pointing to and commenting on. Not only the credibility and appeal of Vicuña‘s storytelling but its very coherence depends as much on the craft of the cast and director (Robert Egan) as it does on our collective associational recognitions during it. Quite deliberately Vicuña invites us—no, requires us—to be thinking along with it and consciously connecting contemporaneous dots. All the speeches such as I’ve sampled function like dog whistles for those of us whose dismay since last November has been deepening by the day. And the satisfaction thus prompted is a pure Pavlovian pleasure response.
This is important to know going in, because all that easy (and hilarious) gratification can come at a cost when the original play Vicuña ends and its new American Epilogue begins. What Baitz has appended takes an abrupt turn—not only in time and staging style but internally, conceptually, in how it asks us to engage with it. No more dog whistles. Now instead an apocalyptic alarm and call to action. And taking seriously that sober call to action is going to be lots harder than passively enjoying potshots.
Some playwrights are more inclined to say what their play is “about” than others. Many refuse to. Baitz, however, does not hold back. In an interview he said,
Vicuna concerns the fucked-up election of an autocratic vulgarian real-estate developer named Kurt Seaman,
The epilogue picks up many years later, after all the catastrophes have occurred and America is breaking and over, a ruined place and a ruined idea, a failed democracy with a broken economy, and roving mobs.
It is a deeply flawed play, but an attempt at understanding ‘conditions on the ground’ in our ghoulish political era, and to project what the end-game of all this hell is. It’s a play about how we die by the sword of our own complicity.
I wouldn’t go along with Baitz that it’s the play that’s flawed, however. The play simply points to a flaw that is in ourselves. Because compared with what’s required to call this vulgarian’s con game on account of conscience, making sport of him is just lots more fun.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission.
Vicuña & The American Epilogue plays through December 3, 2017 at Mosaic Theater Company of DC, performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.