BWW Reviews: Woolly Mammoth's THE TOTALITARIANS Is Delightfully Over-the-Top
The never dull Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is probably a near perfect fit to host the rolling world premiere of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's satirical The Totalitarians. A commission of the National New Play Network in partnership with Full Stage USA, this biting look at the quest for political office in America had its first public performance at Southern Rep Theatre in Louisiana earlier this year. While there are still a few script-related kinks to work out, under the direction of the always inventive and daring Company Member Robert O'Hara, the cast assembled for this production presents the story in the kind of in-your-face way that such an absurdist comedy requires. There are just enough elements of truth and reality within the story that provide the politically-informed audience with ample opportunities to conduct their own examinations of contemporary American politics - warts and all.
The story is initially a relatively simple one. We're in Nebraska - a perfect setting for Any Town, America - at a time not so far in the future and, according to the program notes, very much like today. Francine (Dawn Ursula) is an ambitious and tightly wound political speechwriter/campaign manager that's looking for any big break to provide her with opportunities to go national. She's married to your everyday and not so talented physician, Jeffrey (Sean Meehan), who doesn't necessarily approve of her obsession over making it big in her career - no matter the personal cost - and would much rather her be a nice little housewife and mother. He tries to call all of the shots in their marriage. They're in Nebraska because he wanted to start a practice there, not because it offers numerous ways for Francine to stretch her political muscles.
The best Francine can do in her current location is respond to a posting from Penny (Emily Townley), a wealthy housewife married to a gay man, who needs a speech writer/campaign manager to support her in being elected to a position in Nebraska that's not revealed until the end of the show. Francine is in for an uphill climb because Penny, though eager, has a tendency to put her foot in her mouth and has a personality and a skeleton-filled background that's not exactly fitting for a polished and powerful politician even in Nebraska. Her intellectual capacity isn't all that great either and she rarely has a clue as to what she's saying even if she can certainly move and energize a crowd. Francine knows that Penny is not an ideal candidate for office and fully realizes the odds of winning aren't in her favor. She doesn't really believe in Penny, but her drive and ambition push her through to make a name for herself in political circles. Like Jeffrey in her personal life, she is content to call all of the shots in Penny's campaign. She creates a slogan "Freedom from Fear," that grounds Penny's campaign and is a primary means of gaining popular support.
Through various circumstances - none of which will be spoiled here because they need to be experienced live - Francine and Jeffrey's professional lives intertwine after Jeffrey begins treating Ben (Nicholas Loumos), a passionate young man who's a bit of a conspiracy theorist (to put it lightly) and worries a totalitarian regime will be installed in Nebraska. Their unhappy and secret-filled marriage is also hugely impacted by Francine's support for Penny's political pursuits, which take a path that neither Penny nor Francine would have likely predicted at the outset.
The themes of ambition/drive, control, and passion in one's personal and professional lives are well interwoven into Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's witty script, which takes an unrelenting look at the absurdity of American politics and those that pursue a place within that system. Informed observers will acknowledge subtle and not-so-subtle references to political developments and archetypal figures in our world in his story, but he's careful not to pinpoint his examination on any one type of political party, belief system, or figure type. Unfortunately, he may rely far too heavily on the idea that Penny is pretty much a disaster candidate who can barely comprehend, let alone expertly convey, the most simple of ideas. The repeated misuses of words - particularly in a seemingly endless political speech at a rally in Act One - can only be funny so many times, even if expertly delivered by Townley. A little of that goes a long way to establish the character; too much of it makes the story drag.
Other issues relate to the fact that some of the plot twists can be seen from a million miles away. While they're not always completely predictable, one such twist that comes in the middle part of Act Two does make the ending - which I assume is intended to be gasp-inducing - campy though not necessarily unexpected. Likewise, a few edits in both acts might make some of the superfluous though funny scenes a little more palatable and streamline the story. The worst offense of this is the scene between Ben and Jeffrey in the doctor's office in Act One.
Nonetheless, O'Hara proves he can overcome some of these script challenges and delivers a well-paced production. He also brings out incredible acting performances from his cast.
As far as the cast goes, Townley - dressed to the nines by Frank Labovitz whether wearing a sparkly military uniform or tight jeans with her initials spelled out in stones on the back pockets and cowboy boots, both of which capture her redneck persona perfectly - delivers a masterclass-like performance and steals the spotlight in every scene she's in. Charismatic, self-aware, and deliciously over-the-top, Townley's decidedly human portrayal of Penny is the perfect blend of nuanced acting and campy splendor. Her spot-on facial expressions and demeanor are worth the price of admission alone. I've seen Townley in numerous and varied roles around town and she's always impressed me in everything she does, but this is an award-worthy performance.
She has remarkable chemistry with her castmates, particularly Dawn Ursula who meets her match. She captures Francine's insecurities, masked by her drive and ambition. Although Francine is (to me) a rather unlikeable character on paper, she gives the character enough dimension that we can see why she does what she does in her personal and professional lives and understand what makes her tick. Ursula is one of the most versatile actors in town and does excellent work no matter the show and this one is no exception.
Sean Meehan and Ben Loumas don't make as much of an impression as the females in the cast, but to be fair, Ursula and Townley are given richer material to work with. Meehan's deliberate performance of Jeffrey captures his controlling nature, but desire to break free. Loumas' energy is well-suited to playing the hyped up and paranoid Ben who is self-admittedly, that way because he has a bit of a taste for crystal meth among other things. Although Loumas' performance, for the most part, is a bit too one-note for my taste, his excellent work in the culminating scene makes up for some of those missteps along the way. The culminating scene, I might add, is probably the best example of the solid and very much appreciated ensemble work that O'Hara has drawn out of his cast.
Misha Kachman's mostly minimalist multi-purpose set is instrumental in drawing the parallels and overlaps between Francine and Jeffrey's professional and personal lives. Huge video screens (featuring designs by Jared Mezzocchi) play a crucial role in highlighting the visual aspects of American political campaigning. Lindsay Jones' sound design/original music and Colin K. Bills' lighting design work well to capture the precarious and unstable world that our characters inhabit.
With a bit of dramaturgical help, this play does have considerable potential. It's yet another entry in a series of plays that poke fun at American politics and while there are elements in it that don't distinguish it from other similar offerings, there's enough that's new to make it different. When performed by a cast of this talent level, one can fully appreciate its merits.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.
The Totalitarians runs through June 29, 2014 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's home at 641 D Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-393-3939 or purchase them online.
Photo: Emily Townley pictured; by Stan Barouh.