A dire, urgent warning

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Two weeks ago I went to the opening night of John Robbin Baitz's play Vicuña at the Kirk Douglas Theater. I thought the play was merely a comic footnote.

The basic plot is a Trump-like real estate mogul, Kurt Seaman, is running for President. He needs a suit for the third debate. He goes to a bespoke tailor who's made presidential suits back to Nixon - Anselm. Anselm's an Iranian Jew. His young assistant Amir is the son of Iranian Muslims. The play revolves around the making of that suit made out of vicuña.

On Friday night I went back and saw the play again. Now, that same play is essential, profound, and tragically prophetic.

Two weeks ago, I said Vicuña is going to be a radically different play in a week, not because [Mr. Baitz is] going to change anything but because the country is going to change around it."

When I wrote those lines I, like so many of us, assumed that the country would change to leave Vicuña and the Trump-like character at its center, Kurt Seaman, behind.

I was wrong.

Vicuña is a play you need to see right now. It is a play about why Trump succeeded and what's at stake politically and emotionally.

Two weeks ago, the play was a dark comedy. I sat in the audience comfortable in the media's analysis of the poll numbers. We, in an audience filled with recognizable actors and entertainment folk, laughed at the absurdity of this hateful character. The evening was an exercise in pre-mature schadenfreude. We felt safe in the knowledge of a presumed outcome.

He's going to lose, right? This play was a dismissible four-week run - not an inescapable four-year term.


Post-election the play speaks with a completely different voice. Lines that were funny no longer get a laugh. Other lines that felt laughable . . . well take this one, spoken by the imagined candidate, "I see what your look says. 'The polls', the 'polling', they show me trailing. Well let me tell you something about me and the polls - they lie. They stink! I had a poll taken about people who were afraid to admit to their friends and neighbors that secretly they were on my -- on MY side."

Ha ha… right?

Theater usually deals with either an imagined present or a resonant past from a safe distance. Think of Shakespeare writing about Elizabethan politics through past kings. Or Sophocles and the mythical House of Atreus. Mr. Baitz isn't writing through metaphor. He's writing about Trump right now - post election. He's speaking directly to our crisis.

This play is no longer about the possibility of a Trump presidency. It is now a dire, urgent warning about the cost of collaborating in a bully's dark work.

It is a play and a warning that we cannot ignore.

Vicuña plays at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City through November 20.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

Photo: Harry Groener in the world premiere of Vicuña at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre. (Craig Schwartz)