Theater Review: “Vicuña” — Into the Belly of the Beast

We need a satire that takes Trump’s radical threat more seriously than Vicuña.

Vicuña by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed and scenic design by David J, Miller. Costume design by Elizabeth Cole Sheehan. Lighting design by Michael Clark Wonson and sound design by J. Jumbelic. Produced by Zeitgeist Stage Company at the Plaza Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through October 6.

Robert Bonotto, Jaime Hernandez, Srin Chakravorty, and Steve Auger in Zeitgeist Stage Company’s production of “Vicuña.” Photo by Richard Hall/Silverline Images

By David Greenham

Zeitgest Stage Company enters its 18th and final season by walking into the belly of the beast. Prolific playwright Jon Robin Baitz penned Vicuña back in the first half of 2016. You remember, it was when Donald Trump was on his way to becoming a blip on the political screen — sure to be an obscure question for bar trivia in 2020.

On a superficial level, Vicuña, which is a rare Peruvian cousin of the llama, is a play about an overpriced wool suit. The buyer of the suit happens to be irreverent presidential candidate Kurt Seaman (Steve Auger) whose new motto is “Seaman loves women, and women love Seaman.” Seaman has come to the shop of high end tailor Anselm Kassar (Robert Bonotto), a Jewish man from the Middle East. His apprentice is young Amir Masoud (Jaime Hernandez), the son of Iranian immigrants.

The action of the play also includes Seaman’s daughter, Sri-Lanka (Srin Chakravorty), daughter of Seaman’s second wife, Cornucopia. Sri-Lanka is so named because that’s the country in which she was conceived.

The $150,000 vicuña suit, we learn, is popular with a certain kind of customer. A recent buyer was the Chairman of Nestlé: he wanted to wear it at a big speech in which he’d explain that water is too precious a commodity to remain free.

Like the ‘character’ he’s modeled after, Auger’s Seaman is puffed-up, self-confident, and indifferent to the concerns of those around him. Tailor Kassar protests that he has too many other customers, so he can’t meet Seaman’s deadline for a suit for the final Presidential debate. Seaman dismisses the issue. The apprentice Masoud, who Kassar explains “lacks silence,” speaks up to suggest that such a move would not be good for business. But Seaman scoffs, insisting that working with a future president is good business and “America’s all about business, isn’t it? Yes it is!” The man answers his own questions without an iota of reluctance. Vicuña’s Seaman is one of those kind of guys.

The first act of the ZSC production is spotty at best. The writing is choppy and sometimes forced, such as a very curious moment of closeness between Sri-Lanka and Masoud. But this awkwardness is also due to the actors. Auger’s Seaman poses a lot, to the point that the actor seems more disconnected from reality than the character — at least as he is written — should be. (More on that later.) Robert Bonotto was a late replacement for the role of Kassar, the tailor, and he, along with Jaime Hernandez as the apprentice, are never all that convincing as tailors. But then, maybe that wasn’t the point. Both seem to underplay their roles, even though they fight back against some of Seaman’s more outrageous boasts. The result makes for interesting, but less than electric, banter.

As the candidate’s uncomfortable daughter, Sri-Lanka, Srin Chakravorty has very little to work with in terms of character and motivation. She seemed to struggle to fill the space between her lines. It’s intriguing that Baitz created a sympathetic “Ivanka” role in this play, but I recall that there was a time when people felt that maybe Trump’s daughter would have a level head. As it turns out, she is just one in a long line of Trump’s confidants who we felt might convince him to lead with respect.

While the first act has a number of gaps, act two seemed to turn into an entirely different play, set in a different place, except that we are still in the same tailor’s shop. The opening of act two reveals the plot: the chair of the Republican Party, Senator Kitty Finch-Gibbon (Evelyn Holley), arrives with a proposition from many well-placed politicians and funders. They’re prepared to pay billions for Seaman to blow the race and lose the Presidency. The dealmaking adds to the production’s energy. Holley’s Finch-Gibbon is appropriately spikey, but the conflict at hand resolves itself pretty quickly and then it all melts down in an appropriate way.

What’s unexpected is that in the play’s third act, an epilogue of sorts, Baitz decides to pound his message in with a sledgehammer.

Steve Auger in Zeitgeist Stage Company’s production of “Vicuña.” Photo: Richard Hall/Silverline Images.

I completely understand ZSC’s interest in presenting pointed political satire. But a funny thing happened on the way to penning a silly Trump lampoon: he was elected. Alas, much of the nonsense that Baitz portends seems positively quaint now. In comparison to the real thing, these characters come off as rather hollow. While fighting with Finch-Gibbon, Seaman argues clearly and speaks in complete and coherent sentences. He’s sometimes nuanced and not always menacing in his exchanges with the apprentice Masoud. Back in 2016, it was probably impossible to believe that the playwright’s Seaman — a self-focused and often petulant buffoon — could be less of a parody of sanity than the man who is now our president. In retrospect, Baitz wasn’t even close. A Trump speech is a helter-skelter single-syllable word salad that no playwright would have dreamed up for the president of an eighth grade class let alone for the president of the United States.

The ZSC production probably will be your only chance to see this least of Baitz’s plays. Be prepared to see a brave cast and crew slog through, doing their best with the material. Now, in the fall of 2018, on the eve of midterm elections, it’s clear that there are people in charge who want to take the whole thing down. As Seaman announces, “Take the motherfucker down. Take the whole thing down. That’s what a vote for Kurt Seaman is.” We need a scathing satire that takes this radical threat more seriously than Vicuña.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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