Mosaic Theater Company’s web series Inherit the Windbag is a darkly funny revisitation of a debate between two larger-than-life figures. During the 1968 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, gay liberal writer Gore Vidal and conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. argued with each other nightly on television. In this eight-part series, these two wits return from the grave to continue their debate, joined occasionally by figures such as Norman Mailer, Ayn Rand, and James Baldwin. Written by Alexandra Petri and directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner, each episode will be released every two weeks. Watch this space for a running review.
Release date: April 6, 2021
Episode 4 marks the halfway point of this series, with more guest appearances. Stephen Kime plays Vidal’s longtime partner, Howard Austen, playing with their dogs in a flashback while Vidal prepares for the original debate with Buckley. Tamieka Chavis and Kime both play Truman Capote in a high-pitched, Southern accent. Chavis helps Morella reenact Vidal’s first meeting with Capote, a great piece of physical comedy that might not be true, while Kime begins a convoluted, gossipy story involving Buckley, a famous friend, and the Catholic Church that Chavis and Kime continue simultaneously. Chavis also plays a moderator in the original debate, responding perfectly to Buckley’s extraordinarily lengthy final sentence with “That…was a long sentence.” As the debate turns to racial issues, Chavis appears briefly as James Baldwin, exhausted at hearing these two white men talk and happy to jump into the discussion.
Morella and Lescault begin to move into topics that feel extremely relevant today, as they bring up the Republican party’s take on race, Morella as Vidal pointing out that Richard Nixon secretly admitted to party officials that he was against integration, while Lescault as Buckley wishes there was a way to say “law and order” without the racial connotations it brings up. Morella continues to toss off witty attacks on conservative policies as Lescault casually dismisses them with Latin phrases and haughty comments. Some viewers might find this episode’s frequent use of “Negro” and “f*g” difficult to hear. While they are clearly meant to evoke the language used during the original debate, they are still cringe-inducing.
Sound Designer David Bryan Jackson and Lighting, Projections, and Visual Effects Designer Dylan Uremovich continue their clever use of technology. The background to Vidal and Austen’s scene feels reminiscent of their Italian estate in Ravello, with the sounds of a dog coming from offstage. There are multiple images of Chavis and Kime as Capote, all speaking at once and adding to the author’s flamboyance. Costume Designer Brandee Mathies gives a pink dress to Chavis’s Capote and a loud suit to Kime’s portrayal; both wear sunglasses. Baldwin has a yellow scarf and glasses. Director Lee Mikeska Gardner gradually transitions from comic scenes to more serious conversations. The next episode promises to be exciting, as Baldwin is sure to engage with racial issues.
Release date: March 23, 2021
Guest appearances abound in Episode 3, with Stephen Kime as sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, alternating between making corny jokes with Vidal and asking Buckley questions from his sex surveys. Tamieka Chavis plays Buckley’s wife, Pat, with a great reserve; when Buckley reenacts how he proposed to her, she looks away from him, playing cards. Chavis also plays a broadcast announcer who enthusiastically corrects several errors in Vidal’s biography, while Kime plays Tinker, one of Vidal’s many hookups, challenging the writer on some of his beliefs.
This episode also shows the two leads in soliloquies, with Paul Morella as Vidal, combining wit with passion, explaining how homosexuality is “natural.” John Lescault as Buckley begins with a strange ad of sorts for peanut butter, but then gives a loving tribute to his wife, Pat, who took such good care of Buckley for so many years. Although theirs seems a relationship much lacking in passion, Lescault makes it clear how deep and genuine his love for her was. These speeches work to humanize Vidal and Buckley, as they are not trying to score points or get laughs but to talk about what is dear to them.
Sound Designer David Bryan Jackson and Lighting and Projections Designer Dylan Uremovich continue the skillful use of technology. Pat appears in a painting frame, while Buckley “rolls” up to her to propose. As Kinsey recounts how he and Vidal met, a ballroom becomes the background. Their jokes are met with comedic sound effects, like a drum rimshot. Set Designer Emily Lotz and Costume Designer Brandee Mathies provide a small table and cards for Pat, a lab coat for Kinsey, and a casual outfit for Tinker. Director Lee Mikeska Gardner focuses on Buckley’s and Vidal’s individual personalities in this episode.
By now, the rhythm of the series seems much smoother, allowing the viewer to sit back and follow the action. The ending feels natural and unhurried. Perhaps after two episodes, the viewer now knows what to expect and can relax.
Release date: March 9, 2021
Episode 2 continues the debate, with Tamieka Chavis playing Ayn Rand with a thick Russian accent and a delightfully comic hatred toward Buckley. She also plays Vidal’s mother with a humorous Southern accent; holding a large, full martini glass, she blurts out outrageous secrets about her family. Stephen Kime plays Norman Mailer with a curious mix of aggressiveness and thoughtfulness, rolling up his sleeves prepared to box Vidal and rehashing their old arguments. Later, he gives a tender reminiscence of the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention, remembering the protesting youth.
Lescault dazzles as an erudite Buckley, replying in Latin in parts to Rand and Mailer (translated into English onscreen). As Vidal, Morella responds in great form to his jabs, with casually delivered witty barbs.
This episode makes great use of Sound Designer David Bryan Jackson and Lighting and Projections Designer Dylan Uremovich. as well as Set Designer Emily Lotz and Costume Designer Brandee Mathies. Rand’s face appears in extreme close-up on a monitor, at times only her eyes showing. Vidal’s mother wears a large pink scarf, a brightly white domestic scene behind her. Mailer shows up in life-size, a colorful backdrop behind him. At times he interacts with Vidal, walking around him. Replicating Buckley and Vidal’s original televised debate, the screen changes from color to black and white. Director Lee Mikeska Gardner does a great job of keeping up the energy and comic timing.
Again, the episode seems to end just as the viewer eases into the rhythms and guest appearances. For those who enjoy fast-paced, short bursts of comedy, this quickness is no issue, but viewers who need more time may want to wait for more episodes are released, to binge watch. The production certainly knows how to keep viewers hooked for the next installment.
Running Time: Approximately 14 minutes.
Release date: February 23, 2021
Episode 1 introduces Vidal and Buckley and sets up the situation. John Lescault gives Buckley an aristocratic air of condescension toward his debate partner, while Paul Morella delivers withering putdowns. Both move quickly from wonderment at their location (Hell, or the Richard Nixon Library) to trying to take control of the situation. They work well together, arguing from the moment they first appear and each responding effortlessly to the other’s comments. Tamieka Chavis and Stephen Kime appear onscreen first as broadcasters, preparing for Vidal and Buckley’s return, then remain in the corners, occasionally commenting on the action. Chavis also has a brief cameo as Ayn Rand, doing a wonderful accent, and Kime gives a sinister voice to a disembodied Richard Nixon.
This production translates Set Designer Emily Lotz and Properties Designer Willow Watson’s set, originally intended for a live, onstage show, to the online world. Two comfortable chairs are at the edges of the screen, while a scorecard appears in a corner. Costume Designer Brandee Mathies keeps the characters distinctive, with Vidal in a black suit and Buckley wearing white.
Sound Designer David Bryan Jackson ensures each actor is clearly heard, while also adding TV static sound effects and a distortion to Nixon’s voice. Lighting and Properties Designer Dylan Uremovich enhances the surreal aspect with somewhat low lighting and altered parts of Nixon’s face appearing onscreen. Director of Photography Chris Wren and Video Editor Karim Darwish add extra drama to the production with cuts and other techniques, including a black-and-white flashback to the original debate.
Alexandra Petri expertly captures Vidal’s and Buckley’s personalities with her witty script, while Director Lee Mikeska Gardner keeps the actors’ interactions feeling natural, even though they are all on separate screens. It never feels like a Zoom call. At just over 11 minutes, though, this first episode feels short and ends abruptly, just as viewers are starting to settle in. Hopefully, future episodes will be a little longer. And each episode can be watched multiple times until June. Inherit the Windbag blends the best of technology and drama in what promises to be a humorous and timely production.
Running Time: Approximately 11 minutes.
Inherit the Windbag is available for streaming through June 30, 2021, on the Mosaic Theater Company website. Episodes will be released February 23, March 9 and 23, April 6 and 20, May 4 and 18, and June 1, 2021. The series program can be downloaded here. For further information on this and future episodes and productions, please visit Mosaic’s home page.