In this timely satire, Jon Robin Baitz strips a Donald Trump-like presidential candidate down to his true motives.
In “Vicuña,” a diabolical real estate tycoon turned Republican presidential candidate orders a bespoke power suit for the campaign’s final debate, but it’s clearly the play itself that has been custom-tailored for the candidate in this astonishingly timely, withering political satire from Jon Robin Baitz. Last seen at Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group with the West Coast transfer of his superb “Other Desert Cities,” Baitz wrote this hatchet job expressly for the Kirk Douglas Theatre, debuting it just nine days before the election, and by all appearances, the ink isn’t even dry: Baitz must have been tweaking right up until opening night — which makes for a uniquely fresh theater experience, albeit one with very little chance of ever being performed again.
A naked emperor in urgent need of new clothes, Kurt Seaman (played by Harry Groener) is not a politician, but he plays one on TV, having risen from loudmouth media personality to his party’s nominee for the nation’s highest office. Baitz makes no effort to disguise the fact that Seaman — whose name is the script’s most sophomoric jab — serves as a “surrogate” for wheeler-dealer, deplorable-appealer Donald Trump.
Though Baitz couldn’t have known way back in March, when he pitched the project to CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie, that Trump would emerge the Republican nominee, the fact that the “Apprentice” host is still a factor in the race was a coup for “Vicuña” — though traces of surgery still show in the script. Instead of being a send-up of America’s near-miss fate, potentially “explaining” why Trump bowed out of the race just before the Republican National Convention, the play packs a Cuban Missile Crisis-like urgency in which one senses Baitz making a last-ditch effort to shake audiences to their senses — except that Los Angeles is the wrong city to mount such an effort, preaching to the choir, as it were, when there are undecided voters out there who might still be converted by his message.
With the exception of the final scene, which doesn’t pull its punches but delivers a whopper of a finale from the debate floor itself, the play unfolds in the posh atelier of Anselm Kassar (Brian George), an immigrant tailor — and Arab Jew — whose chic sobriquet, “Anselm de Paris,” masks his true ethnicity, and that of his protégé, a first-generation Iranian American named Amir (Rariz Monsef). Anselm and Amir could just as easily be Seaman’s personal drivers, chefs, or servants, the important thing being that they represent two of the few people of color he allows into his world, uniquely positioned to deliver an essential service to a man whose xenophobic policies might otherwise threaten them with deportation.
Amir represents us in this equation, the “reasonable,” well-educated witness to this democracy-threatening debacle, and yet, he’s an inconsistent and at times confusing character, a self-described “Marxist Muslim” who dropped out of Harvard only to become … a tailor’s “apprentice” (get it?). Where Anselm understands the value of discretion in his line of work, having outfitted celebrities and world leaders alike, Amir volunteers his opinions (objections, mostly) without filter, then holds his tongue just as he’s getting fired up.
The soft-spoken Anselm was inspired by self-made New York couturier Georges de Paris, and past clients range from Idi Amin to Roger Moore (“the best Bond,” Anselm volunteers). Seaman falls somewhere between those poles, a hell-cast millionaire who has made his reputation spouting “what nobody says but everybody thinks.” Seaman’s frank talk launched a surprise presidential bid, and now, just weeks from the election, he seems as bewildered as anyone to have made it this far. “What if I ran for president so I became an even bigger name?” he asks at one point, echoing theories levied earlier in the campaign by lefty doc-maker Michael Moore, among others.
A play in four scenes, divided by an intermission, “Vicuña” begins with Seaman as a scrappy yet confident underdog. Trailing his never-seen female rival slightly in the polls, he needs to come across looking presidential at the final debate, and so he comes to Anselm seeking the appropriate costume: the finest suit money can buy. Hence the play’s title, which describes an alpaca-like creature, the national animal of Peru, whose wool yields such exceptionally soft cloth that it was once reserved only for royal garments. Anselm proposes making a vicuña suit for Seaman at the steep price of $110,000, whipping out his smartphone (the fact that it’s equipped with a plug-in credit card reader gets a laugh) to make it official.
This is but one of many negotiations to be witnessed within the atelier over the course of two and a half hours, which span three weeks from early October till the Nov. 2 debate. First, Seaman must convince Anselm to make the suit, then Amir tries to turn the candidate’s reasonable-minded daughter Srilanka (played with bristling intelligence by Samantha Sloyan) against her own father, and finally, the head of the Republican National Committee (Linda Gehringer) drops by to bribe Seaman into withdrawing from the election.
The last “deal” is by far the most damning — and the most clearly outdated, as it’s easier to imagine the GOP offering $5 billion to buy Trump out in the days leading up to the convention, but not a matter of weeks before the election. Baitz is clearly aiming for an Aaron Sorkin-like mix of intellect and indignation, which he mostly achieves. The stakes are clearly higher here than they were in, say, David Mamet’s softball “November.” Still, “Vicuña” tends to undermine its message with throwaway jokes, including references to meetings with special-interest groups with acronyms like CAICE (pronounced “cake”), MuMU, BRA and BORSCHT (the Brotherhood of Republican Conservative Hebrew Teachers). When things finally do heat up, Baitz shrewedly gives the heavy ammunition to the GOP heavyweight, from whom it will sound all the more damning, though Gehringer isn’t quite up to the task of delivering the screed Baitz has written for her — in which she rips him for being what Warren Beatty’s “Bulworth” described as “an old liberal wine trying to pour himself into a new conservative bottle.”
Cheap shots are just that, cheap, and while it’s amusing to hear that his daughter is named Srilanka (after the site where she was conceived), his ex-wives were Ephemera and Cornucopia, and his father was Adolf (because “Captain Obvious” was taken), the satire is more effective when engaging with the undeniable phenomenon of Seaman’s appeal. He speaks to the angry mob, who have grown disillusioned with career politicians and are hungry for something else.
As written, his rival’s greatest weakness is that she’s not inspiring, and while that’s certainly true of Hillary Clinton (especially compared to the impact Obama had eight years earlier), recent headlines have shown that to be far from her “worst” fault. Baitz cuts to heart of the problem — and perhaps the one facet that will give this play a life after election day — when he observes, “Kurt Seaman doesn’t have to become president. He has already become the alternative to everything else.” Win or lose, Trump has already changed America, an angry clown who has become a conduit to a far deeper unrest, and Baitz is to be credited for capturing that phenomenon as it happens, even if it meant revising until the curtain went up.