Upon first encountering Penny, the funniest of many funny characters in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's The Totalitarians, you might be tempted to write off the Nebraska candidate for office as a conservative stereotype. But don't be fooled. Underneath hair described as “inspiring as Olympic diving,” behind lines like, “I have a weapon and am not supposed to use it?” lies a figure, played by the redoubtable Jamie Jones, who defies easy classification. “She believes in a female god, she's extremely sexually open and has a nice arrangement with her gay husband — well, that's a very Republican thing, I guess,” says Nachtrieb, whose play premieres later this month at Z Space under the direction of Kenneth Prestininzi.
Nachtrieb, a San Francisco playwright, calls Penny “an amalgam of a lot of politicians.” He was particularly inspired by Sarah Palin's 2008 Republican National Convention speech, which transformed her from a nobody into the face of a new breed of conservatism overnight. But Nachtrieb cautions that “there's some Obama in there, too” — especially in the sometimes lofty, abstract language of Penny's own insane but compelling career-making speech, whose slogan is too scrumptious to reveal.
“The play's trying to explore the meaninglessness of political language,” Nachtrieb says, and in that goal, he's an equal-opportunity satirist. “I've tried to make [Penny] as apolitical as possible. It's not meant to be a play that's making fun of right-wingers.” Penny, rather, is “a magnetic force of nature. It's not quite a train wreck or a hero; it's someone you can't stop watching,” he says.
In the play, Francine (Alexis Lezin) is an ambitious speechwriter and campaign manager who must work with this force of nature because she can't get another job — this despite Penny's tanked prospects and dubious values. “She's waiting for me to tell her what she stands for,” Francine says in the play, a neat dig at today's politicians who blindly follow the party line.
Francine's husband Jeffrey (Liam Vincent) questions the ethics of his wife's career move, but he's also no saint. He passive-aggressively nags Francine about giving up her work to have a baby, and it's he who marooned her in Nebraska in the first place, all for the sake of his own physician career, which he's not even good at. He can't bring himself to tell the young Ben (Andrew Humann) that he has cancer, preferring to soak up Ben's conspiracy theory rants, which ultimately seep into Francine and Jeffrey's spat — and into the campaign. As Ben, ever eloquent, puts it in the play: “Political. Personal. All one fucking pie.”
Originally commissioned by New Dramatists in New York, The Totalitarians has benefited from extraordinary support. It's presented here as part of a “rolling world premiere,” an initiative of the National New Play Network that, over the course of a year, helps fund multiple productions, all in different cities, of the same new play. The play has already run at the Southern Rep in New Orleans and the Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C.
Rolling premiers like this one can help playwrights combat a major problem in the theater world: “premiere-itis,” i.e., theaters' desire to produce only the world premiere of a new play, as opposed to its second or third production, because of the cachet a world premiere holds (especially for arts funders), and also of the perceived risk. Even a shy-of-stellar review of a play's first production can dissuade a second theater from essaying it. For many playwrights — local writer Lauren Gunderson has been especially vocal about this issue — premiere-itis means their plays can die prematurely, as a single full production is often not enough for a worthy but perhaps still shaky play to find its feet.
For Nachtrieb, the three years he's spent working on The Totalitarians have meant he can approach different drafts with more perspective, culling for what best serves the play as opposed to a particular production. “Because it's had such a long development process, I'm now looking at old drafts. There were some rhythms from the draft in 2012 that I really liked that seemed to be missing now, so I'm going to go back and see what was working there,” Nachtrieb says.
He's now got some perspective on rewriting as well. “With deeper drafts there's this instinct to smooth, make it tight and sometimes get rid of anything a little weird. I found in this final production that there are a couple things that left that have come back in,” he says. “It's about finding those earlier impulses, those initial oddities.” As if this play hasn't hosted plenty of oddities at every step of the way.