- Los Angeles Critic
A great suit is certainly a factor in appearing “presidential.” Behind every candidate is a skilled tailor, and Vicuña, a new play by Jon Robin Baitz currently in its world premiere at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, uses this angle to follow a villainous presidential candidate as the election draws near. Sound familiar?
No attempt is made to hide the parallels with the actual 2016 election—in fact, the play hits its points so forcefully that it toes the line between satire and straight-up reenactment. The candidate in question is Kurt Seaman (Harry Groener)—the name designed to draw a polite chuckle—an arrogant, hot-headed businessman turned unlikely presidential nominee. He visits Anselm Kassar (Brian George), a gifted tailor, to commission a winning suit for the final debate. Kassar balks at first—the turnaround time Seaman is asking for is almost unrealistic, and he will have to drop other clients to take this on. But, the payday is too good to pass up, even for Kassar, an immigrant. His apprentice (don’t worry, that joke is also made) Amir (Ramiz Monsef) is Muslim, the son of immigrants, and does not contain his outrage at the situation nearly as well as his calm, composed mentor. Seaman’s daughter and campaign manager, Srilanka (Samantha Sloyan)—yes, she is actually named that—is growing increasingly anxious as her father’s poor judgment continues to torpedo her hard work and her family, and she forms an unexpected bond with Amir. Rounding out the cast of characters is Kitty Finch-Gibbon (Linda Gehringer), the head of the Republican National Committee who shows up in act 2 to make Seaman a very intriguing offer.
Directed by Robert Egan, the action unfolds within Kassar’s high-end shop, a gorgeous, rich set designed by Kevin Depinet. At one point, the play even subtly calls out that for a particular scene to happen in this location is a bit contrived, but it is where we remain, at least until the final moments. The cast was fantastic, handling the unique balance of tension and dark comedy quite well. Baitz’s previous play, Other Desert Cities, is a modern favorite of mine, and I was intrigued to see his take on our current politically charged climate.
The central conflict—two tailors are hired to make a suit for a man who stands against everything they are and everything they believe in—is a good one. Obviously, Vicuña’s arrival on the theater scene is perfectly timed, although one could argue it is too specific a piece. It is unlikely it will ever feel relevant again beyond November 9th. That, however, is not the issue I have with it. A point was very clearly made in the first five minutes, a point myself and I am sure virtually everyone else in the Los Angeles theatergoing audience agreed with wholeheartedly…and then the same point was made for two more hours. A lot of the humor and the blatant parallels came across as heavy-handed and on the nose, the type of jokes you react to with a groan and shake of the head rather than a laugh. Perhaps this was the playwright’s intention, but eventually the Seaman puns were just too much.
Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly interesting, character-driven subplots happening here. Srilanka, if you can forgive her ridiculous name, is very interesting, as is Amir. Early on, an indiscretion in his past that changed the course of his life is hinted at and when the specifics are revealed, it does carry weight. I wanted to see more of these people, these real, original people who were not blatant caricatures of figures we are all too familiar with and, quite frankly, tired of. Kassar was equally compelling, and his remarkable ability to remain calm even while Seaman argues with Amir in front of him pays off quite nicely in the final scene as we realize his quietness was far from compliance.
One moment Vicuña definitely got right was the ending. As Seaman takes the stage for the final debate while the other characters watch from afar, what unfolds is surprising, haunting, and honestly, a bit terrifying. The final tableau in particular was chilling, straight out of a too-real nightmare. Ultimately, I struggled with what the takeaway is supposed to be. The audience the play was written for is well aware of the dangers of which it warns. It will, however, make me take more notice of candidates’ clothing next time—when Seaman first donned the impeccable suit, made of vicuña wool, it was almost scary how much more imposing he instantly became. Hopefully, in just another week we will also be able to hang this play and the dark events it represents in the closet, just another remnant of elections past.
Vicuña runs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through November 20th. Tickets range from $25-70 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. Photo by Craig Schwartz