It’s a sad state of affairs when political satire in theaters requires audience members to undergo a security check worthy of the TSA. But that seems to be the case, judging by my recent experience at Joe’s Pub, one of the leading cabaret spots in Manhattan. Upon arriving to see a staged reading of a new play titled The Secret Lunches of Chelsea & Ivanka, my bag was thoroughly searched and my body scanned with a metal-detector wand before I was allowed to enter.
But that’s now par for the course when it comes to political satire in this brutally divisive Trump era. The Public Theater learned that the hard way with its recent Central Park production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which the title character was depicted as a Trump clone, complete with red tie hanging below his belt and a model-gorgeous Eastern European wife. The resulting uproar, which included several protestors rushing the stage during performances, made it evident that Donald Trump’s followers don’t take kindly to jokes directed at their Dear Leader.
Fortunately, there were no such disruptions during this one-night benefit show, the proceeds of which are going to Planned Parenthood. Starring Zosia Mamet (Girls) as Chelsea Clinton and Melissa Rauch (The Big Bang Theory) as Ivanka Trump, the piece, directed by Carolyn Cantor, comically depicts a series of lunches between the two women, who were — at least until the election — self-proclaimed "friends." It covers the period from 2008 until shortly after the 2016 election.
Since the show is a work-in-progress, I was asked not to review it. But even in this early stage, it seems well on its way. It was co-written by Rauch and her husband Winston Rauch, who previously collaborated on another satirical political piece, the 2005 one-woman show The Miss Education of Jenna Bush, which played in New York and Los Angeles; and the film The Bronze, in which the actress hilariously played a character not so loosely based on Tonya Harding.
It’s not surprising that Rauch kills with her portrayal of a self-absorbed Ivanka, who ultimately proves more politically savvy than she initially appears. The actress delivers her often profane dialogue with pitch-perfect comic timing and an exaggerated haughtiness that garners consistent laughs. Mamet has the tougher assignment of playing the straitlaced Chelsea, but she rises to the occasion with sly deadpan reactions in which she effectively plays straight man to her co-star.
But she, too, gets her chance to let loose when Chelsea becomes increasingly anxious and then despondent about the election. The two women who start out as “blood sisters,” referring to each other as “Lewis & Clark” — Chelsea has to explain to the history-challenged Ivanka who they were — eventually find their friendship deteriorating for obvious reasons.
It’s all a hoot, from the jokes riffing on such figures as Brian Williams and Jeff Sessions to the two women’s very different interpretations of the show Hamilton to Ivanka’s description of what exactly goes on at Trump rallies. That the show was being fine-tuned up until the last minute was evident by an ironic use of the word “beleaguered.” It also features a priceless sight gag inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s classic painting Christina’s World. Of course, your enjoyment of the piece will be dependent on who you voted for last November.
The show follows in the tradition of such theatrical political satires as the Lyndon Johnson-inspired Macbird!, Gore Vidal’s An Evening With Richard Nixon and Will Ferrell’s You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush, among many others. The difference is that the performers in those shows didn’t have to worry about being physically accosted when they left the theater. It seems that Trump supporters, much like their president, just can’t take a joke.