Entertainment & Arts

Review: Looking for the lighter side to a nasty election? Playwright Jon Robin Baitz delivers it in ‘Vicuña’

A scene from Jon Robin Baitz’s “Vicuña” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
There won’t be any election day performances of Jon Robin Baitz’s “Vicuña” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
(Craig Schwartz)

A play about Donald Trump set to open a little more than a week before the presidential election seemed like perfect timing — this summer. Oh, but how these last weeks of the campaign have aged us.

Driving to the Kirk Douglas Theatre on Sunday evening for the opening of Jon Robin Baitz’s new play, “Vicuña,“ I couldn’t help feeling weary from the weekend of news in which the proverbial October surprise was still rippling through the media stream.

“Meet the Press” left me with a morning migraine and Twitter had me feeling hopped up on caffeine all afternoon. Theater gods, I implored, please don’t deliver more of the same.  

My prayers were equivocally answered. I’m not shouting “hallelujah!” for “Vicuña,” but at least Baitz has written an actual play. This may not be the subtlest dramatic writing this season, but it’s an honest to goodness comedy, as elaborately worked out (in the old fashioned Broadway way of S.N. Behrman and George S. Kaufman) as it is topical — and with just enough wit and wisdom to survive past election day. 

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The play, under the direction of Robert Egan, is set in the New York atelier of a bespoke tailor to titans of industry and government. This posh room, conjured in all its masculine luxuriousness by scenic designer Kevin Depinet, practically exudes a fragrant bouquet of leather, cigars, whiskey and the finest wool money can buy.

Anselm Kassar (Brian George), an Iranian Jewish immigrant who learned his trade in Paris, is the proprietor here. A master craftsman, he has agreed to make a suit for brash New York tycoon Kurt Seaman (Harry Groener), the Trump-like figure who is, to the shock and bewilderment of those who know him best, the Republican presidential nominee.

Kurt (whose last name provokes a traffic jam of all-too-easy off-color jokes) needs to remake his image for the final debate after his pathetic performances in the preceding contests. He knows that Anselm, who dressed Ronald Reagan to victory, can work political miracles in fabrics. Anselm initially resists, claiming there’s no way he can handle such a monumental job on such short notice, but he gives in when Kurt agrees to a price just north of $100,000 for a suit made of exquisite vicuña wool, a fabric that makes cashmere seem crude by comparison.

Amir (Ramiz Monsef), Anselm’s apprentice and an old family friend of Iranian Muslim background who has dropped out of Harvard after taking part in a political protest that went off the rails, points out that vicuña, “little cousin to the llama,” is a “great animal that we decimated to virtual extinction.” He too has reverence for the material, but he can’t help considering the ethical implications of his actions — a habit of mind that will make it exceedingly difficult for him to do anything in support of a politician whose divisive platform is opportunistically anti-immigrant, anti-women and anti-Muslim.

Kurt routinely baits Amir, sensing they are natural enemies. The conflict between them is inflamed by Amir’s growing closeness to Kurt’s lithe, blond, super-competent daughter and campaign manager, Srilanka (Samantha Sloyan), whose name (chosen for the place where she was conceived) helpfully rhymes with Ivanka in case anyone’s blind to the connection.

Harry Groener plays the presidential hopeful, Samantha Sloyan is his daughter in Center Theatre Group’s “Vicuña.”
Harry Groener plays the presidential hopeful, Samantha Sloyan is his daughter in Center Theatre Group's “Vicuña."
(Craig Schwartz )

Srilanka believes the best version of her dad is capable of rescuing the country. Unfortunately, the worst version of her father keeps sabotaging her efforts toward broadening his appeal.

Kurt can’t stop himself from throwing rhetorical Molotov cocktails in the dark of night on Twitter. He denigrates women on Fox News shortly after delivering a speech at Barnard College that was set up to rehabilitate his image.

Srilanka is worn out, and she finds a sympathetic listener in Amir, who wants to open her eyes to the peril of her father’s political ambitions before Kurt somehow manages to pull off the impossible and become president.

George’s Anselm and Monsef’s Amir are characters more or less cut out of whole cloth, but Groener’s Kurt and Sloyan’s Srilanka flirt with parody. Neither actor stresses impersonation, though the parallels with their real life characters are often pointed, as when Kurt repeats the word “hard” in a hilariously whiny groan to describe the taxing nature of the campaign.

Instead of finely tailoring the comic situation he initially establishes, Baitz overloads his play with plots, introducing in the second act Kitty Finch-Gibbon (Linda Gehringer), a conservative senator who marches into Anselm’s atelier with the martial tread that may remind you of Polly Wyeth, the right wing matriarch from Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” (directed by Egan at the Mark Taper Forum in 2012). Kitty has been sent by a Republican cabal willing to pay just about any price to get Kurt to withdraw his candidacy.

There is something powerfully bolstering about coming together as a community to address the political drama roiling the nation.

The ludicrous negotiation between Kitty and Kurt threatens to turn “Vicuña” into a political farce every bit as topsy-turvy as David Mamet’s “November.” The thinly disguised parody that Baitz has worked assiduously to assemble into a semi-credible comic drama is ditched for something exceedingly broad, but it does provide the playwright an opportunity to vent his spleen.

“Conservatives respect tradition, not shortcuts and recurrent bankruptcies,” Kitty says reprovingly to Kurt. “Not recklessness of deed and impulse, not casual epithets,” she presses on, taking to task his limited vocabulary of superlatives and his pathological obsession with the word “I.”

There is a good deal of speechifying from both the left and the right, none of it favorable to Kurt’s policies or personality. Kurt’s defense is, naturally, an all-out attack on the beltway hypocrites and self-serving elites who have left the white working class in the lurch. He is their pied piper, exploiting their anger for personal gain in a manner that is openly conniving and wickedly knowing.      

There’s nothing particularly revelatory about Baitz’s fundamental critique. As a Trump character study, the play is fairly lightweight. And as an exploration of the psychology of those aiding and abetting a charismatic monster, “Vicuña” flits from family comedy to ethical drama to political farce so frantically that not much is deeply illuminated. Urgency of moral sentiment rather than penetrating insight is the source of dramatic pleasure here.   

Putting aside these shortcomings, there is something powerfully bolstering about coming together as a community to address the political drama roiling the nation. Laughter may not solve our problems, but it can reduce stress levels. Baitz generously provides amusement in a play that is so hot off the press that it almost singes.     

A few of the gags, appropriately enough, revolve around clothes. Costume designer Laura Bauer is challenged to come up with outfits that can live up to their extravagant descriptions. She doesn’t always succeed. Srilanka wears fashions that Ivanka wouldn’t be caught dead in, and an ensemble that Kitty has had specially made by Anselm to launch the USS Custer stretches the nautical joke to the breaking point.

But the vicuña suit is seductive. Terrifyingly so, and then, in a scene you’ll have to see to believe, quite humorously. The comedy doesn’t undercut the menace that Kurt poses to the world. In Baitz’s hands, comedy and menace work together to make clear the stark reality that’s dauntingly upon us. 

‘Vicuña’

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 20. Call for exceptions.

Tickets: $25-$70 (subject to change)

Info: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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