'Vicuña': Theater Review

Craig Schwartz
Ramiz Monsef and Samantha Sloyan in 'Vicuna'
Credibility is stretched and tonal issues hobble an otherwise enjoyable political comedy.

Harry Groener plays a Trump-like Republican presidential candidate in this world-premiere political satire from Jon Robin Baitz, his first new play since the Tony-nominated 'Other Desert Cities.'

With campaign fatigue gripping voters in the final days before the election, Vicuña, Jon Robin Baitz's enjoyable political satire, ought to be the perfect antidote. But while the immediacy of hearing recent events described on the stage carries a certain thrill, for the most part the new play strains credibility, with a tone that toggles between satire and farce, veering toward caution in the end. Despite its failings, there are plenty of laughs and strong performances in this world premiere, the first of what will no doubt be many Donald Trump-inspired imaginings to come.

Real-life tailor Georges de Paris, who died last year at age 80, dressed nine U.S. presidents from Lyndon B. Johnson to Barack Obama. His atelier is the model for set designer Kevin Depinet’s swanky Manhattan haberdashery, Anselm de Paris, with changing rooms right and left, a desk opposite a seating area and a private elevator upstage center, through which actors arrive and exit.

Proprietor Anselm Kassar (Brian George), an Iranian-Jewish immigrant, is mid-conversation with his newest client, Republican presidential candidate Kurt Seaman (Harry Groener), who seeks a magic suit that will somehow help him win his third debate against the Democratic challenger. His current outfit is a silvery gray number that seems weighted with the endless miles of the campaign trail, especially when compared to what costumer Laura Bauer has given Kassar — a pink dress shirt with a red bowtie, white collar and cuffs and red suspenders. 

Never mind that Kassar finds his client's politics repugnant, he takes the commission because, "like a doctor, I cure the badly attired, the cancers of style." Plus, his fee will be $110,000 for a suit cut from vicuña, a rare wool from an Andes-dwelling camelid, said to be worn by Incan royalty. Kassar introduces Seaman to his assistant, Amir Masoud (Ramiz Monsef), a young man of Iranian-Muslim background whom he labels “apprentice.” That Trump reference draws laughter from the audience, though Amir is less than amused.

Amused or not, it’s impossible to imagine there’s no protocol for dealing with the powerful in establishments like Anselm de Paris, which makes it difficult to believe Amir would so candidly contradict a man who might soon be the leader of the free world. Also hard to swallow is the fact that such a man has time for an argument with someone like Amir.

Indeed, Seaman has a full schedule, maintained by his campaign manager and daughter, Srilanka (Samantha Sloyan), including an event with the Brotherhood of Republican Conservative Hebrew Teachers (BORSCHT), as well as a speech at Barnard College where he hopes to shore up votes among college-educated women. “Women love Seaman!” he jokes. “And Seaman loves women!”

When Srilanka and Amir are left alone together, a fast and unlikely intimacy blossoms between them as she confesses that her father’s campaign has made her a social pariah, at one point blurting out, “I am alone!” Again, why and how a campaign manager with a candidate as reckless as a drunken kamikaze has time for a heart-to-heart with an assistant tailor just days before a debate is anyone's guess.

While centerstage seems to belong to Seaman, Monsef's Amir is the heart of the play, giving voice to fair-minded audience members in support of human rights and common decency. Director Robert Egan elicits a passionate performance from Monsef, who conjures clashing chemistry with Sloyan's seemingly cocksure, but ultimately vulnerable Srilanka.

"There's only one American Dream, and that is to take what’s left," Seaman cynically tells Amir as it becomes clear he means to threaten the assistant tailor’s hot dog-vending parents from Queens over a slight so trivial not even Trump would bother to sue.

Three-time Tony nominee Groener (Crazy for You) studiously avoids playing the real-life candidate, instead creating an organic persona equally brutish in his thinking — though far more articulate and ultimately insidious. What makes Trump hilarious is the fragility of his ego beneath all his bluster. Slightly less foolish and less amusing is Seaman, who appears chillingly committed to tearing the establishment to pieces.

That commitment is put to the test when RNC chair Kitty Finch-Gibbon (Linda Gehringer) offers him $5 billion to throw the election, delivering what is meant to be a cathartic screed (far more acid-laced than Amir’s), in which she calls him a "demon Manchurian candidate sent by Beelzebub." Hyperbolic laugh lines aside, Baitz, the creator of ABC’s Brothers & Sisters, writes incisive and colorful dialogue peppered with passages of political acuity that call to mind his 2011 play, Other Desert Cities, a family drama rife with political strife, which was also directed by Egan in Los Angeles.

Names like Srilanka and Seaman, along with a trouser-dropping gag, signify farce, reflecting the true nature of Trump’s campaign. Instead, Vicuña struggles to satirize real-life events that already satirize the political process. The play veers into darker territory in the latter half as Seaman indicates he means business, putting a cautionary spin on the levity that has gone before.

Baitz could not have known while writing whether the Republican candidate at this point would be a legitimate threat to normalcy or an outlandish sideshow careening toward defeat. If polls are any indication, Trump will be a footnote in a few more days, which likely means that even as Vicuña takes its bow, the play is already past its sell-by date.

Venue: Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City
Cast: Linda Gehringer, Brian George, Harry Groener, Ramiz Monsef, Samantha Sloyan
Director: Robert Egan
Playwright: Jon Robin Baitz
Set designer: Kevin Depinet
Costume designer: Laura Bauer
Lighting designer: Tom Ontiveros
Music & sound designer: Karl Fredrik Lundeberg
Presented by Center Theatre Group