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GLOUCESTER, Mass. -- Couldn’t Peter Sinn Nachtrieb have tried to ground his play “The Totalitarians” in reality? He has a candidate seeking office who runs off at the mouth saying ridiculous and contradictory things, speaking at a fifth-grade level, making bizarre anatomical and sexual references — and who ends up blowing away the traditional political competition.
Right, like that could ever happen.
Sometimes an artist just taps into the zeitgeist in a way that not only warns us about the future, but predicts it. “The Totalitarians” premiered in 2014, before Donald Trump’s campaign got (steam)rolling. The satire, now at the Gloucester Stage Company (through Sept. 24), involves a celebrity roller derby trophy wife, Penny Easter, who decides to run for statewide office in Nebraska. And with the help of a Karl Rove wannabe, Francine, she becomes alarmingly successful.
Granted, Nachtrieb had Sarah Palin to work with as a role model, but Penny seems much more Trumpian. Palin was/is a true believer, whatever one might think of those beliefs. Trump? Maybe not, when you factor in his about-faces on abortion and immigration, just for starters.
For all the parallels, though, “The Totalitarians” is an over-the-top satire. The title refers to a conspiracy theory promulgated by Ben, a “Mr. Robot” like activist who tries to convince Francine’s nerdy husband, Jeffrey, that Penny is a Manchurian Candidate for folks who want to turn Nebraska into a totalitarian state.
OK, maybe it still sounds not that far removed from the “vast right-wing conspiracy” and, now, the “vast alt-right conspiracy” but there are still laughs to be had here as Penny campaigns on roller skates, or as Francine gets sexually aroused for the first time in ages by the quality of her own speechwriting, including the meaningless slogan, "Freedom From Fear," which becomes a crowd chant of “F-F-F” on the campaign trail.
Not all of this works, but every time it seems as if “The Totalitarians” is going off the tracks there’s a crack about reading off a Teleprompter or some such line that drags us back to the fact that we’re not just in Nachtrieb’s Nebraska.
And the production is all to the good. Jeff Zinn, who’s moved from Cape Cod to Cape Ann as managing director of Gloucester Stage, has brought a couple of his Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT) stalwarts with him: Amanda Collins as speechwriter Francine and Lewis D. Wheeler as her husband, Jeffrey. WHAT was an early supporter of Nachtrieb (Zinn ‘n’ Sinn) so the threesome know their way around the playwright’s absurdism.
Joining the fun is Breean Julian as Penny. Julian channels both Jane Krakowski in “30 Rock” and Steve Carell in “The Office” to fashion a performance that grows nicely as the two hours progress. She mangles the language like Carell (“I hate the nay people,” meaning naysayers) and is blissfully narcissistic like Krakowski. Alex Portenko does the job as the Occupy-Nebraska conspiracy theorist though he has the least to work with.
Some of Nachtrieb’s humor is delicious, some rib-tickling, but at the end of the day, or the end of the play, I’m not sure that he has much more to say about what’s caused today’s political insanity than Penny has about what ails Nebraska. But good laughs are hard to find in today’s politics. We might as well enjoy them in the theater.
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