The soundtrack (Air Supply, Bob Seger, Christopher Cross) is eerily familiar. A six-pack of Tab chills in the fridge. Tight and polyester pretty much sum up the clothes. Set in the year of the Iranian hostage crisis and Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory, Jimmy Carter Was a Democrat (P.S. 122) offers a time-capsule look at an era that, for better or worse, was never short on style. Playwright Rinne Groff, however, cares less about our fashion mishaps than our historical antecedents. The implicit question of her fluid and resonant retro drama concerns the roots of our present political impasse: How exactly did we arrive at the narcissistic American muddle CNN reflects back to us, 24-7, with such earnest delight?
Labor historian and master of ceremonies Samuel B. Shostakovitz, Ph.D. (Steven Rattazzi in an ill-fitting brown suit), detects a dangerous legacy in the doomed air-traffic controllers’ strike of 1981. To trace the anatomy of a union’s murder, he follows the soap opera-ish travails of spunky Emily (a pitch-perfect Carla Harting), who copes with the stress of regulating New York’s airways by sleeping with one of her married co-workers (Daniel Stewart). But as the strike talk swells, Emily’s luggish lover finds it harder to perform his studly role, leaving her to pursue an affair with an FAA supervisor (Tim McGeever) who gets her suspended even as he tries to monopolize her affections. In the post-sexually liberated dawning of the repressive Reagan era, political enemies make for perfectly satisfying bedfellows—at least until the hangover of unprincipled choices deepens everyone’s alienated gloom.
Formally ambitious while maintaining a casual downtown air, the play unfolds in Samuel’s shabby Queens studio. Occasionally wearing presidential face masks, Rattazzi (who does a better Reagan than a Carter) captures his character’s anxious need to demonstrate the way our private and public selves are inseparably complicated. Raised “in an America that believed strike-busting” was wrong, Samuel wonders whether “the metaphorical skies can ever be metaphorically safe again?”—a thought that has taken on more menacing meaning in the intervening years of political disconnection and shortsightedness.
Michael Sexton directs with sinuous dexterity, never allowing the production to grow too ponderous or silly. It’s a tightrope walk, made especially challenging by the mélange of genres (melodrama, agitprop, meta-theater, and even musical, if you count the neo-Brechtian song written by the author and Richard Maxwell). Occasionally, the writing gets tangled in its chase for wayward human truth, but Groff’s refreshing scope and humor ricochet back only to propel us forward. —Charles McNulty
Secret Asian Man
Like a misspelled menu item I once saw in a Chinese restaurant, Alexander Woo’s farcical Forbidden City Blues (Pan Asian Rep) is a “wanton soup” of identity politics, assimilation anxiety, and the haunting strains of Ricky Nelson. Though Woo works days as head of research for The Weakest Link, his capricious comedy isn’t entirely trivial. Sure, a diplomat wears a clown suit and a beaver named Yuri enjoys frequent shampoos, but Woo also uses his play to comment on critical race theory. He presents a cypher of a central character, a Chinese American named Raymond Chang, on whom neither nature nor nurture (nor ultimately physiognomy) has great effect. Unfortunately, under the direction of Pan Asian Rep stalwart Ron Nakahara, both the feistiness of the farce and the sharpness of the critique grow dull.
As the play opens, Blind Amos Cunningham (Jose Ramon Rosario) wails a blues riff that introduces Raymond (Rick Ebihara) and Alice (Kate Chaston) on a plane to Beijing. Raymond rhapsodizes about re-Orienting himself, while Waspy Alice rates the deplorable airplane bathroom on a cleanliness and efficiency scale. Once arrived, Raymond leaves Alice in their 95-out-of-100 hotel bathtub, ventures to the bar and gets shanghaied by a femme fatale Chinese intelligence agent named Monica (Fay Ann Lee). Monica and insidious apparatchik Pavlov (Peter Von Berg) reveal their fiendish plan—to transform Raymond from Asian to Caucasian and train him for espionage. They condition him to loathe rice, Kabuki, and lithe-limbed acrobats, while giving the former vegetarian a jones for steak, “Traveling Man,” and trashy blonds.
The conditioning scene that features an ecstasy-blown Raymond writhing pleasurably while Monica and Pavlov sing along to “Traveling Man” ought to be hilarious, but it’s only vaguely amusing. Under Nakahara’s direction, nearly all the actors seem underrehearsed and unfocused. As a member of the avant-garde Asian American performance group Slant, Ebihara has already demonstrated his physical-comedy chops, but he seems at a loss here. And Lee and Von Berg haven’t decided how loud they ought to sing or how to dance together. If timing is important in comedy, it’s crucial in farce, but Raymond’s jet lag seems to have affected the whole company. As the post-op Raymond, Scott C. Reeves fares somewhat better, and Les J.N. Mau turns in an energetic performance as the beaver-combing Chinese premier. In several roles, Perry Yung—another member of Slant—acquits himself well.
If Woo’s New York debut isn’t exactly a moo shoo-in, it nevertheless shows promise. Even a wanton soup can be pretty toothsome. —Alexis Soloski