Here are a few salient events that have occurred in the 13 months since Jon Robin Baitz’s nominally satirical play Vicuña debuted at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles:
Donald J. Trump—a flamboyant, thrice-married, habitually bankruptcy-declaring New York real estate developer and reality TV star whose biography (though not his personality or manner of speech) closely resembles that of the main player in Baitz’s play—was elected President of the United States.
On the evening of Trump’s inauguration, Baitz, who’d come to D.C. to participate in the Women’s March the following day, was attacked outside of the Kimpton Carlyle Hotel in Dupont Circle by “this 350-pound enormous redheaded linebacker guy” (as he told Vanity Fair’s Rebecca Keegan) who’d directed an anti-semitic threat at the playwright and his companions. Baitz is pressing charges.
Finally, the playwright added a dreamlike—that is to say nightmarish— direct-address coda set 12 years in the future called The American Epilogue to what had been, in essence, a barbed drawing room comedy prior to this Mosaic Theater Company production. This queasy addenda makes Vicuña retroactively resemble Building the Wall, the more urgent dystopian two-hander Robert Schenkkan wrote in the week prior to Trump’s election that got a bunch of simultaneous productions earlier this year. It also weirdly recalls the ghostly third act of the Thornton Wilder classic Our Town. But it doesn’t substantially bolster the emotional payload or nominal insight of the preceding two hours. It’s an extra that feels, well, extraneous.
That Vicuña’s two parts are so incongruent in tone (and length) is a fair reflection of the seismic shock of Trump’s victory, an event so grotesque that even writers as imaginative as Baitz couldn’t really imagine it. John de Lancie, who played the trickster villain Q on Star Trek: The Next Generation before going on to memorable roles on The West Wing and Breaking Bad, was not part of Vicuña’s original cast (only one member of which has returned for this production), but he’s a perfect fit for the part of a vainglorious TV demagogue.
Baitz’s premise is that Republican nominee Kurt Seaman has commissioned Anselm (Brian George), a master tailor who has prospered in New York since fleeting the Iranian Revolution decades ago, to make him a $150,000 bespoke suit for his third presidential debate. (The show’s Hillary Clinton surrogate remains unnamed, referred to only by pronouns.) Despite Anselm’s church-and-state separation of his business from his politics, the series of fittings over a period of three weeks affords the men ample opportunity for unpack whether Seaman really detests immigrants and Muslims as much as he has found it profitable to claim. Seaman says too many absurd things in these sessions to count. Anselm says only one: That his client Roger Moore was the best James Bond.
Seaman’s lengthy visits to Anselm’s shop (handsomely designed by Debra Booth) give Amir (Haaz Sleiman), Anselm’s confident, Iranian-born, Harvard-educated apprentice, time to question the candidate, and to try to persuade Seaman’s adult daughter Srilanka (Laura C. Harris, easily holding her own against the out-of-town cast) to denounce her father’s campaign. As a Republican senator tasked by a cabal of donors to bring Seaman an offer she thinks he can’t refuse, Kimberly Schraf brings her usual authority to the role. Once she shows up, the comedy get a lot funnier.
It’s never less than absorbing, and the performances are first-rate. But it feels like an ancient artifact from a saner world than ours—as satire, it would’ve lagged badly behind real life even when it was new. The play’s surrogate Trump and Ivanka are considerably more eloquent than their real-life analogues. Anselm, meanwhile, is modeled on the late Georges de Paris, a tailor who made suits for every president from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama (and Sir Roger Moore).The title, Vicuña, refers to the fine wool of an Andean-dwelling cousin of the llama. Here again, crude, dumb real life makes Baitz’s dramaturgy feel more precious than profound. Though Trump’s vanity in every other respect is without limit, it does not extend to his clothing. His baggy, unflattering suits always look like he slept in them.
At Atlas Performing Arts Center to Dec. 3. 1333 H St. NE. $20–$65. (202) 399-7993. mosaictheater.org.