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, episodes were released every two weeks.
Release date: June 1, 2021
Episode 8 brings the webseries to a close, as Morella and Lescault heatedly debate the chaotic scene outside the Chicago Democratic Convention. Morella as Vidal passionately defends the right of protestors to “peacefully assemble,” while Lescault as Buckley rejects their protest as illegitimate, arguing that they were provocatively slandering Nixon. The two recreate the infamous scene when Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley, violently angry, responds: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face”— which creates a brief, if awkward, silence. Lescault tries to defend his remark and gets the last word, protesting the way the contest is settled. Morella seems happily resigned, floating away on a separate screen.
Stephen Kime plays an amalgamation of Vidal’s partner Howard Auster and the other men in the series, commenting on the police’s response to the protestors. He also plays the demonic voice of Nixon, who finds a way to further torture Vidal and Buckley. Tamieka Chavis plays the debate moderator and a questioner of Buckley.
Sound Designer David Bryan Jackson and Lighting, Projections, and Visual Effects Designer Alessandra Cronin end the series with technological flair. As Chavis asks questions of Buckley, a background of sunny skies and water appears, Chavis’s mouth the only part of her appearing. The stage briefly turns black and white to recreate the debate, and the screen splits between Buckley and Vidal, with Vidal floating upward.
Costume Designer Brandee Mathies gives the debate moderator a bow tie, while Kime’s combined character wears a vest and purple tie. Director Lee Mikeska Gardner captures the vitriol of Buckley’s “queer” outburst, allowing the action to briefly pause.
Running Time: About 12 minutes.
This series blends acting and technology well, allowing for special effects that would have been difficult to create on a stage and adding to the surrealism of the premise. Some episodes are perhaps too short to let viewers fully engage, but brevity seems crucial for a webseries. While certainly amusing, the debates between Vidal and Buckley bring up serious issues that we are still grappling with today, like racism, America’s role in the world, and the right to protest. They also remind us that while Vidal and Buckley are perhaps the wittiest examples of this form of debate, it seems less a search for truth than a kind of entertainment, in which combatants score points against each other and make no concessions. This combative approach to political discussion—accurately depicted in Petri’s script—feels partly responsible for the current tension and division driving a wedge between our political parties. We have indeed inherited windbag politics.
Release date: May 18, 2021
Episode 7 takes a quiet, thoughtful turn, punctuated with humorous instances. Tamieka Chavis and Stephen Kime play hosts in a game-show–style competition, asking questions to Morella and Lescault, who both respond with clever quips. Chavis also briefly plays the debate moderator, asking one question, while Kime makes a quick appearance as Vidal’s partner Howard Auster and a strange amalgamation of other historical figures he portrays during the series, including Norman Mailer. Morella as Vidal speaks movingly of life after Auster’s passing, and, remembering that the debates happened before the moon landing, speaks wistfully of the high hopes that adventure inspired, which, he soon realized, were “lunacy.” Lescault as Buckley talks about Vidal’s failed run for a seat in Congress, before speaking about how the Democratic party has no philosophy, no “eschatology,” and so has no hope for success. At times he looks pained, clutching his chest, crossing himself, and briefly pausing.
Sound Designer David Bryan Jackson and Lighting, Projections, and Visual Effects Designer Alessandra Cronin continue to skillfully use technology. During Vidal’s speech about the moon landing, a full moon appears in the background, with ethereal music playing. A colorful psychedelic set pops up behind Kime’s composite figure. The sounds of protestors, faintly heard at first, grow louder, and black-and-white footage of police appear.
Costume Designer Brandee Mathies gives the debate moderator a bow tie, while Kime’s combined character wears a vest and tie. Auster feels more casual in brown jacket and slacks. Director Lee Mikeska Gardner creates moments of calm reflection in between the joking and utter disagreement, and before the growing chaos of the Chicago Democratic Convention. This episode feels like a pause of sorts, for viewers to catch their breath, before the next and final instalment.
Running Time: 14 minutes.
Release date: May 4, 2021
Episode 6 drops Vidal and Buckley back in their debate at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Tamieka Chavis plays brief cameos as an announcer and nurse to Vidal’s longtime partner Howard Auster, while Stephen Kime gives an anger to Auster, scoffing at Vidal’s statement that his boarding school friend Jimmy Trimble was “the love of his life,” and his assertion that “there’s no such thing as a homosexual; there are only homosexual acts.” Morella as Vidal speaks of Austen’s death with great tenderness, calling writing at his partner’s desk afterward “the we reduced to a singular me.” Lescault as Buckley continues his witty combativeness, referring to Vidal’s novel Dark Green, Bright Red as “the only anti-fruit novel of Mr. Vidal’s career.”
Sound Designer David Bryan Jackson and Lighting, Projections, and Visual Effects Designer Dylan Uremovich use technology to help create both tender and comic moments. A harpsichord plays “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” which Auster briefly sings along to in the background as Vidal speaks, while Buckley mimes playing it, recounting a performance where the audience begged him to stop after the 12th variation. When Auster’s nurse appears on a screen, the sounds of vital signs beeping and flatlining flash. As Vidal and Buckley discuss the Vietnam War, a long list of “Countries We’ve Invaded” scrolls on the screen behind them, under the title “Empire Building.”
Costume Designer Brandee Mathies gives the debate announcer a bow tie, while Auster dresses casually in his brown jacket and slacks. Director Lee Mikeska Gardner helps the actors return to the more grounded realm of the debate and memory after the previous episode’s fantastic odyssey. While a quick installment to the series, this episode provides for some quietly emotional performances.
Running Time: Approximately 10 minutes.
Release date: April 19, 2021
Episode 5 features the most action so far in the series while also adding to the strangeness. Multiple cameos reappear, including Stephen Kime and Tamieka Chavis as a double Truman Capote, telling the story of how Vidal was forcibly removed from the Kennedy White House. Kime also plays a representative of the John Birch Society, arguing against the fluoridation of water, and a 7th-grade conservative writing a fan letter to Buckley. Chavis also plays Ayn Rand floating by on a cloud, as well as Mrs. Buckley as a siren of sorts, meeting Buckley on his sea voyage to the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.
Chavis’s most powerful performance, though, comes from her portrayal of James Baldwin. She speaks quietly at first, with controlled emotion, about racism in America. She calls Buckley and Vidal “windbags” and takes off her glasses before giving a passionate argument for confronting the issue, combining intellect with emotion. At the end, she puts her glasses back on, regaining her composure. It feels intensely relevant in light of recent events, and could have gone on longer.
Morella and Lescault continue to their witty banter, Morella as Vidal explaining the real reason he was escorted from the White House and Lescault as Buckley angrily responding to his young fan’s questions.
Sound Designer David Bryan Jackson and Lightning, Projections, and Visual Effects Designer Dylan Uremovich go further with technology in this episode. The background becomes an ocean, and Buckley’s boat appears, as does a copy of Vidal’s novel Myra Breckinridge. Sounds of birds calling are throughout the journey, and the episode ends in a visually suspenseful image. The animation feels more cartoonish than previous effects, giving a sense of silliness to the scene. Costume Designer Brandee Mathies gives the two Capotes WASPish sweaters around their necks, while the John Birch representative wears goggles and a snorkel. Baldwin, in a closeup, has a loosely worn yellow tie and glasses. Director Lee Mikeska Gardner keeps the actors reacting in character and believably to this episode’s growing strangeness. While this show is a comedy, hopefully more time can be given to discuss serious issues and show emotional performances.
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.