Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s “The Totalitarians” has received much critical praise for its farcical take on modern-day democracy in America. Set in Nebraska, where the candidate for lieutenant governor is something of a cross between Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann (with perhaps a touch of malaprop-inclined George W. Bush thrown in), the play is riotous until it isn’t. Call it a dark comedy, with the emphasis on dark. It opened last weekend at Capital Stage, ably directed by Peter Mohrmann.
Mr. Mohrmann, a co-founder of this excellent theatrical organization, does the best he can with the bizarre material Mr. Nachtrieb provides in the form of the script, which, in our view, tries to do too much with too little. The too much includes what must be intended as satiric commentary on the sad state of electoral politics in the second decade of the new millennium and the very real issue of how to balance personal ethics and commitment to one’s spouse with raw ambition in a political career. Throw in a few direct jabs at homophobia and the power of money in politics and you have the makings of a theatrical version of “House of Cards.” Comparisons to HBO’s hilarious “Veep,” however, aren’t apt. That show is too real to qualify as the all-out farce Mr. Nachtrieb is after.
The too little is the cast of characters, which Mr. Nachtrieb has limited to four, with each burdened with representing and speaking to the many ideas noted above in the space of two acts. And it doesn’t help that some of the action is intended to be just gross-out funny, which it is, without really serving any of the ideas the playwright seems to want to push, or that the play’s single-most coherent message is delivered all too abruptly in its last scene.
All that said, this production of the play provides for a fun theatrical experience, primarily because Jamie Jones’s portrayal of the candidate (Penelope Easter) is just plain hilarious. It could even be labelled “over the top,” but that undoubtedly is what the script calls for, and Ms. Jones definitely delivers it. She is that scary/funny combination of dim-witted and ambitious, media-savvy and vacuous, amoral and ruthless. In these respects, she may strike some as resembling a current presumptive nominee for president, but that comparison was presumably not intended by Mr. Nachtrieb, as the play was written before that particular candidate began his campaign.
The other members of the cast more than hold their own against Ms. Jones’s bravura performance. As the ambitious speech writer/campaign manager, Kelley Ogden makes her character readily identifiable and believable. Her scenes with her husband are compelling when viewed without the comic overlay the script requires. In them, she shows a flair for the dramatic that the script, regrettably, doesn’t really provide until that last scene.
The two male roles are less impressive, but Cassidy Brown, as the husband, and Casey Worthington, as the young would-be revolutionary, more than hold their own in their portrayals.
Mr. Mohrmann keeps things hopping with quick shifts of the focus from one scene to the next. Stephen Decker designed the set and served as technical director. Ron Madonia handled the lighting, and Ed Lee supplied the bumper music between scenes, which was appropriate in every instance. Rebecca Redmond was responsible for the costumes (especially for the garish outfits provided for Ms. Jones’s character).
As funny as “Totalitarians” is, it must also be said that its dialogue is raw and its action (especially in the second act) violent, probably with enough of each to make some uncomfortable. But, then, this organization has never let those kinds of considerations get in the way of a unique theatrical experience. For all its shortcomings, this play more than measures up to that standard.
“The Totalitarians” continues in production at the Capital Stage Theater through July 24. Tickets and information are available at the theater box office (2215 J Street), by phone (916-995-5464) or online (capstage.org).