You probably couldn’t get a more timely theater opening than Vicuna, a comedic satire about the political ambitions of Donald Trump, which has just opened at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles, less than a week before the 2016 election.
Penned by Jon Robin Baitz, the Pulitzer Prize-finalist playwright and scriptwriter, known for plays including Other Desert Cities and ABC TV series Brothers & Sisters.
Vicuna was written while Trump was just one of the many Republican candidates running for the nomination and has subsequently been rewritten several times to reflect the new reality of Trump’s presidential run.
I went along to the play intrigued to see why a playwright of Baitz’s stature would take the time to write something that might have such a short lifespan. I wasn’t sure that Vicuna would have much relevance once the election is done and dusted after November 8.
About 10 minutes into the first act I got the answer to my question. This is Baitz exorcising some of his own Trump-hating demons with a smug attack on what he perceives as the flawed character and morals of the Republican presidential candidate.
The play is set in a tastefully decorated NYC tailor’s atelier, reminiscent of the bespoke tailors on Saville Row in London or an uptown gentleman’s club—all sumptuous furniture, expensive wallpaper and reeking of wealth and privilege (wonderful set design by Kevin Depinet).
Kurt Seaman (the Trump character played by Harry Groener) commissions a new “magical winning suit” that he hopes will give him the edge in his final presidential debate. The Jewish Iranian head tailor, Anslem Kasser, (brilliantly played by Brian George) is reticent at first to make the suit but the lure of Seamen’s money persuades him to reluctantly do so.
— Center Theatre Group (@CTGLA) October 27, 2016
Kasser’s young apprentice Amir (Ramiz Monsef) is a sharply-dressed Iranian Muslim who hates everything that Seaman stands for and the antagonism between the two builds to a climax over the course of the play as Seaman returns to the atelier for fittings.
This antagonism is heightened by the fact that Seaman’s daughter and campaign manager, Srilanka, played by Samantha Sloyan (Srilanka rhymes with Ivanka—of course) finds herself entranced by the apprentice and realizes, with his help, what a “monster” her father actually is.
After we witness Seaman being bribed to throw the election by the chair of the RNC and then threatening both Kasser and his apprentice with deportation, the play ends in a final apocalyptic scene, at the last debate, with a raving Seaman/Trump calling for a new American civil war against the “elites” and the destruction of America itself.
The mainly older Hollywood audience at the premier seemed to enjoy the play—chuckling at all the jokes that labeled Seaman an “unprincipled, greedy, misogynistic racist” and applauding wildly at the end. But I thought the anti-Trump sentiment was laid on much too thick and the monologues in the production were the kind of hysterically angry diatribes usually found in the comments sections of the Huffington Post or the Daily Kos.
I’ve always believed that art—especially satirical plays like this on such a topical subject—should challenge our perceptions. On this front I think the play failed. The characters were stereotypical and clichéd as hell. Kurt Seaman (puns on both names fully intended) is portrayed as the most evil man in the world and early on, states his father’s name was “Adolf” with no trace of irony.
His depiction was that of a one-dimensional figure constructed only through a prism of defamatory soundbites via CNN and MSNBC. Then there’s the kindly Iranian Jewish tailor, Anselm Kassar, who, of course, left Iran during the Shah’s rule (the Shah supported by the “horrid” USA, naturally) and not after Khomeini and his extremist form of Islamic theocracy arrived on the scene forcing the Jews to flee… but I digress.
Next is Amir, the “noble, peaceful, intelligent, moral, full of integrity, more of a god than a human being” young Muslim, who was “the apprentice” (get it?) whose poor pious, Mosque-attending, hard-working parents run a “hot dog stand” (seriously?) and were in the USA on “questionable” visa status.
There also had to be a reference to Trump’s “p*ssy” statement… enter Kitty Finch-Gibbon, the archetypal money-obsessed, country club Republican. Played by Linda Kehring, Finch-Gibbon attacks Seaman for not being a patriotic true conservative.
Finally there’s Seaman’s daughter, who is appalled by her father’s vile personality and joins in trying to get him to step down. This is satire as subtle as a kick in the face. To my mind the way the production preaches to the converted overwhelms any dramatic qualities it might otherwise have had.
Even the characters that were supposed to be “conservative” were actually just a lazy amalgam of what the liberal left believe being conservative is. It might have been more interesting to have had a conservative writer accurately produce the dialogue for the conservative speeches.
That would have provided food for thought on BOTH sides rather than the one- sided, agitprop piece that I watched.
There’s a great play to be made from the rollercoaster ride that is Donald Trump’s Presidential run. But sadly this is not it.