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Theatre in Review: First Daughter Suite (The Public Theater)

Barbara Walsh, Theresa McCarthy. Photo: Joan Marcus

Barbara Bush as a tragic heroine? You didn't see that one coming, did you? It's only one of many surprises to be found in First Daughter Suite, a wildly uneven, but often striking and surprisingly moving, quartet of musical episodes by Michael John LaChiusa. Among the show's pleasures are the author's wildly different, and often highly original, takes on a number of presidential spouses and daughters, and an A-team of musical theatre talents in splendid voice. And don't let the title fool you, either: As was the case with his earlier First Lady Suite, it's the ladies named Pat and Nancy and Barbara who continue to fascinate him the most.

After a strong opening, in which the assembled company sings of life in "a house that will never be a home," the evening kicks off with "Happy Pat," set on the day that Tricia Nixon is to have her White House wedding. The scene is fraught with tension; with the changing weather, no one can decide if it should take place inside or out. While Tricia frets, sister, Julie Eisenhower, snipes, President Nixon is locked in a conference with Bebe Rebozo about the Pentagon papers, and can't be bothered to offer advice. (Tricia's fiancé, Ed Cox, is nowhere to be seen.) Someone must make a decision, but who? Well, there's Pat Nixon, sitting, perfectly poised, on the couch, a martini at hand. If she looks a little vacant, it's because she is listening to the ghost of Hannah Nixon, the president's withholding mother, who reminds her, "Vanity. All is vanity."

In the extraordinary performance of Barbara Walsh, Pat seems to be the perfectly lobotomized political wife. But when she sings a quiet song of yearning ("If for a minute: Happiness/One single hour: Happiness/All the worried thoughts/Inside my head disappear"), we begin to take the measure of a woman who sees and feels things far more deeply that we initially grasped. Lonely and adrift, she recalls the days when Nixon courted her desperately ("Even when I was dating other boys/Dick would drive me into town/And wait until my date was over/Then drive me home/What kind of man does that?"); as she does, the music darkens appreciably, alluding to the tangle of neuroses at Nixon's core. She seems to be speaking for them both when she sings that "the world that you've built/Starts to crumble and cave/Til you find out all too late/That you've dug your own grave/In pursuit of being beloved."

Looking uncannily like Barbara Billingsley as June Cleaver, Walsh is a superb Pat, her apparently serene face acting as a Potemkin village, behind which is a life marked by disappointment and a powerful gift for endurance. (As she instructs her daughters, "You fix/Your face/And stand/In place/Don't blink/Don't shrink/And don't betray the thoughts you think/And never surrender/Guard what you own/And save your tears for later/When you're alone.") She also makes the most of LaChiusa's shimmering music, which positively vibrates with sympathy for a woman whom history has treated as a minor player. Betsy Morgan and Caissie Levy both capture the mix of jealousy and affection that mark the Tricia - Julie relationship, and Theresa McCarthy, dragging her Shaker chair across the stage, singing "I will go visit Richard now/He will need my advice") is an amusing wet blanket, the patron saint of disapproval.

The second, and most problematic, piece is "Amy Carter's Fabulous Dream Adventure," in which little Amy, asleep, imagines herself, mother Rosalynn, and Betty and Susan Ford on the deck of a ship. While Betty demonstrates her dancing skills -- including a few Martha Graham moves, recalling her youthful study with that titan of modern dance -- and Rosalynn quietly reads a book, Amy tries to charm Susan, who hates her mother and is openly bitter about her father's failed run for the White House. (As it happens, the Iran hostage crisis is in full swing, and it is pretty clear that Amy's father is likely to be a one-term president, too.) Susan cooks up a scheme involving a raid on Iran to save the hostages, with dire consequences for all. This sort of whimsy isn't LaChiusa's forte and the sequence rambles badly in search of a rationale, hitting notes of satire, farce, and sadness without ever settling on any of them. Little Carly Tamer, decked out in blonde bangs and braces on her teeth, is a winsome Amy, and there are solid contributions from Morgan as a tough-talking Susan and Rachel Bay Jones as an eerily serene Rosalynn. Alison Fraser's Betty Ford, swilling cans of Billy Beer -- is a bit on the broad side, reaching for laughs that aren't really there.

Fraser triumphs, however, as a frighteningly composed Nancy Reagan in the third episode, "Patti by the Pool." We are at the home of Betsy Bloomingdale, prominent friend of the Reagans, in 1986, where Nancy and her daughter, Patti Davis, are sunning themselves. It is not a happy time: The Iran-Contra scandal threatens Reagan's administration, and Patti has recently published her hatchet-job novel, with its thinly disguised portrait of her parents. Utilizing some of LaChiusa's most savage music, Patti attacks her mother's composure with every weapon at hand, singing, "Do you know what it's like/To have a narcissistic mother?/Do you know how it is/And do you care?/No, you're more concerned/About your hair/And the stupid tranny clothes/You wear." All she gets in response is a drawled, "We all have problems, Patti." This is the most acidulous of the pieces: An apparent moment of mother-daughter forgiveness turns out to be nothing more than a power play on Nancy's part. Fraser's Nancy is a study in evasion as a control device and Levy's Patti is the quintessential wounded child, desperate for attention, even of the negative sort. Isabel Santiago sings beautifully as Anita, the Paraguayan maid, who has some very sinister housekeeping duties.

The evening ends on a stunning note with "In the Deep Bosom of the Ocean Buried," which might also be titled "Barbara Bush Agonistes." We are at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport at the end of summer 2005. The war on terror in the Middle East has gone sour and President Bush has become a polarizing figure. It is the 50th anniversary of the death of Barbara's daughter Robin, and she is visited by Robin's ghost, a middle-aged apparition who enjoys this once-a-year private audience with the mother she had for only a little while. Meanwhile, a tactful Laura Bush keeps trying to get Barbara back in the house and ready to go back on the campaign trail.

The most fascinating and ambitious of the four pieces -- it is virtually a chamber opera and contains some of LaChiusa's most beautiful music -- it avoids easy satire or derision to imagine a woman whose stoicism, carefully cultivated in the name of supporting her family's political goals, is beginning to unravel. She is nobody's victim -- you'll feel a chill when she sings, "Jeb got into some trouble in Florida, but we fixed that" -- but we also come to see how a lifetime of self-denial has turned her into "the granite granny." She bitterly swears that she won't pollute her "beautiful mind" with "those bitches on CNN/And New York leftist snobs/Self-important, fact distorters/Biased, bitter, bad reporters-/Why fill up my head/With ugly thoughts?" And as for her son George, she sings "I can't seem to love his...mediocrity."

The one bit of tenderness in her life is her once-a-year communion with Robin, who, unlike the rest of her striving relatives, has been made philosophical by death, singing, "Something friendless/Hungry and endless/Runs underneath the waves/How we come to live it isn't clear/Why is it we love/What we most ought to fear?" The piece becomes a remarkably moving meditation on the pull of ambition versus the never-ending pang of lost love, the nagging fear that the constant reach for glittering prizes may, in the end, mean nothing. Or, as Hannah Nixon, reminds us, "Vanity. All is vanity."

Barbara Bush is played by long-time LaChiusa muse Mary Testa, who commands our attention the minute she pronounces, "I didn't raise my son to be unpopular," stressing the last word as if to suggest it is tantamount to leprosy. Testa rules the stage with iron authority even as she appears to be staring into some private, and entirely unpalatable, private reality. She spars tensely with Jones' Laura, who, in a melancholy solo of her own, reveals how her skill at letting go has informed her marriage. McCarthy is a fine spectral presence as Robin, a strangely prescient child still, despite her middle-aged appearance.

Kirsten Sanderson's direction gets equally fine work from her designers, beginning with Toni-Leslie James' costumes, which include Pat Nixon's floral formal gown, and the stunning contrast between Nancy Reagan's matching red swimsuit, cape, and heels with Patti Davis' denim cutoffs, punk-themed t-shirt, fishnet stockings, and boots. The wig and hair designs of Robert-Charles Vallance are crucial here, especially the poofy, upswept look of Pat Nixon and Betty Ford's coiffures, and the iconic white curls for Barbara Bush. Scott Pask's sleek set design features various furniture arrangements on a transparent deck with frozen ocean waves underneath. Tyler Micoleau's lighting expertly carves the actors out of the thrust stage of the Anspacher Theater, creating a different feel for each piece. Ken Travis' sound design is a tad loud and artificial for my taste, but it does accomplish the all-important task of making sure LaChiusa's incisive lyrics are always intelligible.

Cutting across partisan lines, determined to see each wife and daughter not as a caricature but as a human struggling, often with almost impossible circumstances, First Daughter Suite is, for all its flaws, a remarkable act of the imagination. LaChiusa's music, especially as orchestrated by Michael Starobin and Bruce Coughlin, has a powerful undertow of deep feeling not always present in his previous work. This is arguably his finest piece in some time; it makes a series of too-familiar faces suddenly seem new and very much worth knowing. -- David Barbour

(22 October 2015)

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