It’s roughly a year ago to the day that Vicuña—a political satire of presidential proportions—had its first showing in Los Angeles.
At the time, audiences laughed themselves silly over the idea that a self-serving buffoon—one who’d made his career in failed real estate deals and reality TV—could be elected to the highest office in the land. The joke, however, was on them. The play, while funny, was scary.
Today, Vicuña is back. And despite its sense of parody gone awry and an elegiac postmortem tacked on at the end, it’s still hilarious. Renamed, it is now Vicuña & The American Epilogue and, as such, is having its world premiere at Mosaic Theater Company of DC, where it has audiences howling in their seats.
Written by Jon Robin Baitz, who is one of America’s most talented and prolific playwrights, Vicuña & The American Epilogue weaves the elements of gender and generational competition into a series of sallies and debates between political rivals, parents, and children and those caught, like the shy animal of the title, in the foray that ensues.
John de Lancie is brilliant as Kurt Seaman, the central character, who has decided—probably as a joke—to run for president. Ferociously funny yet untamed, immoral, unscrupulous and as politically incorrect (and poisonous) as they come, Seaman is larger than life.
Played by de Lancie—a leading Shakespearean actor who wields the power and confidence of a self-made king—Seaman is a clown who is shamelessly corrupt. He scorns women and immigrants in general, and hates Muslims, all of whom he deems to be terrorists, in particular.
As the play begins, the campaign is drawing to a close. Having won his party’s nomination and facing his final debate with the opposition, Seaman decides that he must have the perfect suit.
What’s the perfect suit? Why, it’s one handmade by Anselm, the finest bespoke tailor in the world.
Anselm is more than a tailor. He’s a Persian Jew, proud bearer of a legacy dating back to Abraham. (The back story is that he was a student at university in Teheran when the Iranian revolution took place and managed, thanks to his Muslim best friend, to escape to America.)
Brian George—an actor now making his mark on the Los Angeles stage after a long career in TV and film—plays Anselm, giving him the patriarchal dignity of the Arab Jew. As such, he is the Biblical Hebrew who didn’t wander. Like his counterparts in Russia, however, Anselm is part-sorcerer, able to sew a Golem—a magical creature with secret powers—into the seam of a suit.
Seaman’s arch—or archest—enemy, however, is neither the tailor nor the opposition (the evil “she” in her baggy pants suits) but the redoubtable Senator Kitty Finch-Gibbon, head of the Republican National Committee.
Kimberly Schraf does a stunning turn as the Senator, nearly exploding with wrath as she tries to force, then bribe, the interloper—whom she rightly recognizes as a threat to decency as well as conservative values—with a monologue that is like an aria. It’s a showstopper.
Both de Lancie and Schraf are veteran actors, and it’s clear that they’re having a great time, insulting each other while paying cat-and-mouse on a stage that can barely contain them.
Of course there’s an apprentice—how could there not be?—and he is the Iranian son of the buddy who rescued Anselm all those years ago. The apprentice, Amir, played by Haaz Sleiman, is now working for Anselm because he got thrown out of Harvard for defacing the flag.
The candidate’s daughter, named Srilanka (supposedly because that’s where she was conceived), is played by Laura C. Harris. She is also a feminist, a speech writer and the campaign manager.
Srilanka’s isn’t the only comic name in this fable. There is also the unseen Cornucopia, Seaman’s second wife, presumably based on Marla Maples.
It’s all fun and games until the Epilogue, which casts a dark shadow over preceding events. The final scene is set in a dystopian future, one in which the survivors of democracy are hiding out in what is either purgatory or the California desert.
Debra Booth has designed a beautiful set, replicating the studio of New York’s leading bespoke tailor, located, we are told, on 67th St between Madison and fifth. Dominating the studio is a large elevator door, through which all the characters grandly enter and leave.
The studio itself is filled with appropriate designer furniture—the instantly recognizable (though probably reproduced) Barcelona chairs and glass-topped tables of Mies van der Rohe—plus a variety of suits on tailor’s dummies and shelves of shirts and ties all tastefully displayed.
For the Epilogue, the studio is transformed into a shack, surrounded—thanks to Alberto Segarra’s fine lighting and projections—by the eerie shadows of the Joshua trees. Karl Lundeberg’s spectral sound suggests that we are in purgatory. Reneé Alexander is the stage manager who engineers all the comings and goings, both in the present and in the future.
The props, designed by Michelle Elwyn, include a subtle Spode look-alike tea set, cocktail glasses that are probably Waterford and bolts of cloth, including the precious vicuña of the title.
(Vicuña, for those who are wondering, is the extremely rare wool—finer, by far, than cashmere—that comes from a small alpaca-like animal that roams the Andes in Peru. It is the cloth from which Seaman’s suit is cut.)
And since this is a play centered on a suit of clothing—a suit that may get the evil Seaman elected—costumes play a significant role. Brandee Mathies has designed a real show-stopper in her uniform for Senator Finch-Gibbon, but some of her other choices are less successful. (Srilanka’s dress, in the opening scene, is strangely ill-fitting and dowdy.)
Much of the credit for this production goes to Director Robert Egan, who has worked with Baitz for more than 30 years, many of them while he was head of the New Work Festival at the Mark Taper Forum. Now in charge of the Ojai Playwrights Conference, he has directed more than 350 new plays around the world.
Whether the punishment—the scene described in the Epilogue–fits the crime is an open question.
Ari Roth, the founder of Mosaic, describes the Epilogue as “both a prophecy and a lamentation,” although—as he notes in the program—it ends on a note of hope.
The playwright, Jon Robin Baitz, is less optimistic. He likens it to a prayer for the dead, a eulogy for the loss of the twin foundations—idealism and democracy—on which America once stood.
Baitz decided to write the Epilogue after the recent Inauguration, when—in front of witnesses, inside a Dupont Circle restaurant— he was actually beaten up by a Trump supporter who said ‘Seig Heil!’ That incident made him realize, as he puts it, that “the Barbarians are no longer at the gate. They are here, and the sacking is well underway.”
As someone who grew up under Apartheid in South Africa, Baitz is perhaps more aware than the rest of us of the chilling power of populism and the danger of moral decadence.
With or without its epilogue, Vicuna is an exercise in theatricality that is all the more compelling for being real. Based on the most thinly-veiled events—that someone totally unqualified for office would aspire to the highest one in the land—the story is a parable, worth seeing and heeding. Don’t miss it.
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.