Harvey Milk famously said, “Politics is theater,” and he wasn’t wrong. When everything you say and do on the campaign trail, and while in office, is closely scrutinized by the public you serve, your behavior is inevitably shaped by that awareness.
Not surprisingly, this natural kinship between two performative constructs has resulted in a number of plays about politicians and the people who work with them, and Theatre Nova’s production of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s black comedy “The Totalitarians” (which had its world premiere in 2014) is among the most recent crop.
“The Totalitarians” focuses on a young and hungry political operative wannabe named Francine (Sayre Fox), who hitches her wagon to rising star Penelope Easter (Diane Hill), a Nebraska state government candidate more famous for her great hair than for clear policy positions or eloquence.
Francine’s physician husband Jeffrey (Joe Zarrow) – who feels neglected, wants a baby, and questions Francine’s advocacy for a seemingly unqualified, shallow candidate – also struggles at work, where he meets (and treats) a young, manic conspiracy theory nut named Ben (Connor Forrester). Instead of working up the courage to deliver Ben’s dire prognosis, Jeffrey falls under the sway of Ben’s bizarre notions about a secret plan to make Nebraska a totalitarian state.
“The Totalitarians” clearly doesn’t aim to paint a realistic portrait. (Francine, despite being “on the rise,” is a pretty terrible speech writer, and Jeffrey, who can’t screw up the courage to give his patients bad news, could not possibly retain a license to practice medicine). Rather, it’s an over-the-top bit of silliness, lampooning our political system. Understood. And perhaps the seriousness of our current, divisive political climate makes it harder to sit back and laugh.
Because I must confess, I didn’t find myself laughing much at all.
You might think it’s because the story cuts too close to reality for some of us, but I’d argue that it’s more a function of Nachtrieb’s shallow script – for there’s nothing all that inventive or insightful or witty in “The Totalitarians.” Yes, director Carla Milarch and her able cast do what they can with the material, landing a funny bit here and there, but overall, the I’m afraid the nearly two hour show wouldn’t get my vote.
Madcap farces only work if the relationships at their center make sense, and if we connect with the characters in some way. There’s not enough in Nachtreib’s script to give us a clear understanding of Penny, the person who should, by rights, be the charismatic sun of this particular galaxy. Hill makes her an ambitious woman of voracious appetites, who’s aware of both her limitations and her strengths; beyond that, however, there’s little to hold on to. Ben, meanwhile, is so extreme in his paranoia that I strained to believe that he’d ever consult a doctor – let alone buy the idea that Jeffrey, probably the most grounded person in the story (and Zarrow’s all-in performance was, for me, the true standout), would get caught up in Ben’s ravings, too.
And what does “The Totalitarians” have to say, in the end? That we’re too easily seduced by pandering candidates who speak in vague bromides? That the lure of power inevitably makes us compromise our moral beliefs?
Don’t we already know and acknowledge these things on a regular basis?
Even so, Theatre Nova’s season-launching production features some solid artistic contributions. Forrest Hejkal’s set design economically combines segmented interior backdrops, providing context for Penny’s campaign office and Francine and Jeffrey’s bedroom, which flank a central panel, painted to resemble a Nebraska field of crops, with a skyscape that doubles – when Daniel Walker’s expert lighting design diffuses the stage with color – as a waving flag (a neat effect). Haley Cook designs the show’s simple-but-appropriate costumes, and Aliyah Kiesler designed the sound.
One thing Nachtrieb gets right, of course, is our capacity to elect utterly unqualified people into office. We can, and we sometimes we do. But when everyone around that candidate is just as shallow, self-absorbed, and prone to acting on impulse, the problem (and thus the dramatic tension) gets watered down. There’s no contrast, no grounded voice of reason in the chaos, so in the end, there seems nothing to fight for or try to preserve. This may give “The Totalitarians” an absurdist bent, but it also makes it seem there’s no reason for hope.
And maybe there isn’t. But the notion hardly puts me in the mood to laugh.
Photo: Sayre Fox as Francine and Joe Zarrow as Jeffrey in “The Totalitarians” by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Golden Record Media Company.