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Theatre in Review: N/A (Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre)

Ana Villafañe, Holland Taylor. Photo: Daniel Rader

How to describe Holland Taylor's lazy, yet lethal, way with a line? Like a tennis pro casually lobbing balls over the net? A cat, languidly batting around a toy? A renowned slugger upending the status quo on the diamond with an unexpected bunt? Cast in N/A as a once-and-future Speaker of the House of Representatives -- you get no points for guessing whom playwright Mario Correa has in mind -- the actress has a way of lowballing wisecracks that makes each of them land with twice the punch.

Tutoring "A," a newly elected, left-leaning representative from the Bronx -- you get minus points for guessing who Correa has in mind -- Taylor (known here as "N") is the sternest of schoolmistresses, describing the legislative process in doom-laden tones as "not for the faint of heart." "You make it sound like a horror movie," A comments, nervously. "Horror movies end," N replies tartly. Naturally, she is brutally wise to the caliber of our elected officials; when A notes that the Capitol could benefit from gender-neutral bathrooms, N growls, "Spend a little time with your new colleagues before you put that in the suggestion box." N is also the queen of one-upmanship. Noting A's instant celebrity thanks to a major upset election victory, she says, "You've landed on our shores like The Beatles." She pauses exactly one half-second, before adding, "They were a band."

Her pearliest moment comes after the events of January 6, when she is packing up, deposed from her swanky office-with-a-view by the new GOP majority. A enters and notes that the mirror smashed by MAGA hooligans hasn't been repaired. "I want the next Speaker to see it," N says. "it's bad luck," A warns. N, a Mona Lisa smile forming, murmurs serenely, "So they say."

Theatre fans will note that a decade or so ago, Taylor held forth upstairs at the Vivian Beaumont as a rowdy, riotous Ann Richards, onetime governor of Texas in the solo play Ann. It's good to have her back in the political theatre, ensuring that N/A's diaphanous gloss on Nancy Pelosi is equally treasurable. Whether crisply announcing her favorite number (218 -- out of 435, of course); hondeling the support of a reluctant House member with vague promises of a committee appointment; or angrily noting that her mother, not her legislator father, was her biggest influence ("Funny how women never get the credit -- even for nepotism"), she is the ultimate Congressional warrior, unfazed by fools, electoral setbacks, or gibberish-spouting presidents.

Of course, Taylor needs a sparring partner, and she has an excellent one in Ana Villafañe as A, who has risen to a position of power so quickly she doesn't quite know what to do with it. Dressed in matching dark-colored slacks-and-blazer ensembles, her hair carefully pulled back, she looks positively Puritan but for the contradictory slash of red lipstick. (As styled by costume designer Myung Hee Cho, she is a dead ringer for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.) She initially comes across as modest, but she means business: Pushing eloquently for a Green New Deal, demanding action at the border, or trying to conjure moral leadership where none exists, Villafañe doesn't shy away from A's steely idealism, especially her youthful expectation that calling out injustice is tantamount to vanquishing it. But she is also compellingly rueful when recalling how the bottom fell out of her family's middle-class existence and remarkably stoic when referencing the rape that she'd rather not talk about. And, baring the ugly details of her visit to an immigration detention center, she furiously presses an argument that N can't refute: If innocent people are dying, what is the point of small legislative successes?

It's an old, old story, pitting the impatience of the young against the expertise (combined with diminished expectations) of their elders; in a way, N/A mirrors the central conflict of the musical Suffs, another political drama featuring a newly arrived firebrand versus an incrementalist power player. The debate between N and A is livelier than anything recently seen on CNN because the participants wrestle with a central problem of modern democracy, namely the sheer impossibility of getting big things done. Ironically, this is also the play's greatest weakness: Like Congress, it rarely seems to make progress, preferring to repeatedly rehearse the same bullet points without finding a workable compromise. As it true of many a bill, it gets stuck in committee.

Still, the director, Diane Paulus, keeps the conversation on a constant simmer and Taylor always has a zinger on hand when things start to get too much like the Sunday morning talk shows. Cho's spare set design is a fine canvas for the projections by POSSIBLE and Lisa Renkel, which include news updates, footage of the January 6 insurrection (given a blood-red silkscreen treatment), and an amusing selfie featuring a smoothly grinning N and a deer-in-the-headlights A. Mextly Couzin's lighting and the sound design by Sun Hee Kil and Germán Martínez are both solid.

Since we're clearly in for a wild political summer -- I write this on the morning after the first presidential debate, as panic grips Democrats across the land -- some, looking for theatrical escape, may find N/A to be a little too much like a ninety-minute session with Politico or The Hill. But Correa is asking questions that should concern us all and Taylor is a show all by herself. Democracy may be in crisis but at least we can laugh about it. --David Barbour

(27 June 2024)

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