Polling a Play's Heart

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

Vicuña, John Robbin Baitz's world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre is going to be a radically different play in a week.

That's not because he's going to change anything but because the country is going to change around it.

Mr. Baitz has written a play about our current electoral nightmare. This is a thinly veiled drama, or maybe comedy, about Donald Trump. Here named Kurt Seaman. You see the comic potential there? So does Mr. Baitz, but more on that in a minute.

Kurt Seaman is a wealthy real estate developer running for President. He needs a suit for the third presidential debate, something that will give him stature, presence, gravitas. He needs something magical, bespoke. So he goes to Anselm's. Never mind that Anselm is an Iranian Jew or that he has a young Muslim apprentice, Anselm makes the best suits. He made suits for Regan, Nixon, everyone. So Seaman drags along his daughter/campaign manager, Srilanka (get it?), to Anselm's tony second floor studio in Manhattan where the play takes place.

Mr. Baitz tones down his Donald character, sensing, perhaps, that the real thing is too over the top for the stage. What he and actor Harry Groener have crafted is the essence of Trump but with complete sentences. Mr. Groener's performance is stunning in its physical and vocal presence, capturing the frightening magnetism without devolving into empty mimicry.

His adversary onstage is the eloquent and hot-headed Amir. Amir is Anselm's young apprentice and the Harvard educated son of Iranian immigrants. I won't spoil all the character revelations but let's just say that Amir was asked to leave graduate school over a protest that involved goat blood and an American flag.

Vicuña is an interrogation of the fault lines that lie beneath our current political crisis. Mr. Baitz has always been at his best speaking to an audience he knows well in complicated political ways. He knows the American theater audience is a reliably blue affair.

So why write a play about Trump for an audience that likely despises him? Is it for cheap laughs? Is it to complicate our understanding of the threat? It is twisted wish fulfillment, like yelling back at the TV during the debate?

There's a bit of all three in Vicuña. At its best, the play tackles liberal faults and lazy thinking while diagnosing a deeper, distinctly American problem. At its worst, it devolves into gratuitous shots at an easy target. Remember that last name, Seaman? Like a moth pulled to a deadly flame, Mr. Baitz can't resist the obvious sophomoric puns. If Mr. Seaman built a building with a fountain, what do you imagine he'd call it? Yup. That's where we go.

But it's hard to criticize Mr. Baitz. He's tackling a world that's evolving, or maybe devolving, hourly around him. Theater doesn't usually attempt something so topical. It's a bit like going to see Richard III a week before he murders and grabs the crown. Think about that.

So whatever Vicuña is this week, it's going to be a totally different play after the election. Will it be an odd comic footnote or a prophetic, tragic warning?

I'm voting for comic footnote.

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

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

Running time: 2 hours with an intermission.

Photo: (L-R) Brian George and Harry Groener in the world premiere of Vicuña at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. (Craig Schwartz)