A new and very topical play titled “Vicuña” just had its world premiere with the Center Theater Group at the Kirk Douglas Theater.
Kurt Seaman, the protagonist of Jon Robin Baitz’s story, is a presidential candidate who’s a thinly veiled version of Donald Trump. The play is set in a high-end tailor’s shop, where the immigrant owner has been hired to make a custom suit — made from expensive vicuña wool — for the candidate’s final debate.
Baitz says Seaman is not literally Trump and that he avoided taking direct cues from the real-life campaign. But the ideas espoused by the lead character will be familiar to audiences. The play is equal parts comedy and drama, with plenty of belly laughs that gradually turn into nervous tittering. And, by the end, just nervousness.
Jon Robin Baitz graciously came into the studio to talk with The Frame's John Horn about the play's genesis.
To hear the conversation click the play button at the top of the page. Highlights are below.
On the quick turnaround for "Vicuna" and when he started:
It was March 26th, because I was on a plane flying across country, and now on a plane you can watch the news and stuff. And it was one of those days where the mass of news is incomprehensible to me as a person who believes in moral order and logic and decency. Something was happening or had just happened where it looked to me like Donald Trump was going to be the candidate for the Republican party. I just started writing on the plane, and I had 20 or some pages by the end of this flight. I sent them to Mike Ritchie who runs the Center Theater Group. He was my stage manager for an early play of mine. I knew he was going to run the world, I just didn't know he was going to run mine. And then to Robert Egan who I've worked with — a wonderful director and a great collaborator many times with me. I sent them both these 20 pages and said, "Can we do it?" Michael said, "Yeah... I hope you finish it."
On the main character's differences to Donald Trump:
You can't just do mimicry. You can't just do a skit — as brilliant as Alec Baldwin's Saturday Night Live skits are — because then it's almost not a play really. In more than five minutes it flattens out. Kurt Seaman evolved, and I refer to him now as the Jed Bartlet of the Alt-Right. For those of us who had liberal inclinations during the years in which he was in office on TV, he served as a kind of president in exile. Similarly, Seaman is probably a lot smarter than Donald Trump. He's much more articulate. He's not a prisoner of maladroitness. He's canny and sly and ugly, but not particularly vulgar. So he diverged and once I started to hear Harry Groener, who plays him in the play, he was gone forever, Trump.
On the importance of diverging from the tropes of Donald Trump:
God, yes. That's the most important part of it, too. The tropes are too easy. The tropes are every single day. The tropes are a vulgar form for the female genitalia, etcetera. If you put those into play, you might get a quick easy laugh, but it's no longer your play. It's simply a function of headlines.
On what the play illuminates for the audience about the candidate:
Kitty Finch-Gibbon, the chair of the RNC, does represent a face of an opposition that you wish there were. She's somewhat reminiscent of an older traditional... maybe it's Eisenhower or paradoxically maybe it's even a version of Goldwater Republicans. It's certainly not what we have now. I want to remind people that there are things to think about. A lot of things that are happening now and are true I give to Seaman to talk about: the rage of the underemployed, the rage of those left behind, the death of the American dream for so many people who watched banks get bailouts — the automobile companies get bailouts while they got nothing. Kurt Seaman capitalizes on this.
On what the play will look like after election day:
I don't know about the shelf-life of it. I hope that it's something that we're able to laugh in the dark at a little bit. I would like to think there's a cautionary tale about forces being unleashed in the country — that rage I spoke of, those supporters of Kurt Seaman in the play who will not go away. Listen, every playwright wants their play to live, but when I set out to do it, it was just to have something of the moment, in the moment.
On the playwright's ability to write quickly and stay topical:
That was one of the goals I set for myself — a kind of ambition or athleticism is what you're really talking about. And I'm not a great athlete, but maybe in this case I ran a race simultaneously to another race. I wanted to try and do that. It is the obligation of art to comment and shine light and criticize and decry and mourn for. If you can't do that a "media res" — in the heat of battle — then you're missing some fundamental component. I also wouldn't allow it to be an agitprop's greed. It had to have its own dramatic virtues. It is actually the hardest thing that I've ever done. I didn't realize when I started. I thought this would actually be pretty easy. But the first draft of it did try to hew closely and follow the exact dimensions of Donald Trump and his race. But I gave those pages to my frequent collaborator and ex, Joe Mantello, and he said, "It's not going to do enough if you do that." And I started over.
On how he think the play will be received the Wednesday after the election:
I'm so tense and tired at the same time. This phenomenal exhaustion I feel around me. It's like everybody is living in a New York City of the soul right now: the subways aren't coming, things are broken, the sounds are too invasive, the weather is really hard. Everybody is living in this New York of the soul right now. We're really tired and we want to retreat to the Catskills.