Zeitgeist’s ‘Vicuña’ is a political satire tailored for these times
There is certainly no shortage of Donald Trump impersonators around at the moment, from Alec Baldwin on “Saturday Night Live’’ to Jeff Bergman, the voice of Trump in “Our Cartoon President,’’ the clever animated series co-created and produced for Showtime by none other than Stephen Colbert.
So it was a wise choice by actor Steve Auger to largely refrain from direct mimicry, apart from a single “Yuge,’’ in his portrayal of a blustering, Trump-like tycoon turned Republican presidential candidate in Zeitgeist Stage Company’s production of Jon Robin Baitz’s scorching satire, “Vicuña.’’
Instead, Auger broadens the portrait by channeling the general species of bumptious, All-American boor to which Trump belongs. His Kurt Seaman — now there’s an impish choice of moniker by playwright Baitz — is the kind of born-on-third-base-and-thinks-he-hit-a-triple rich guy we’ve all met at one time or another. Seaman oozes a swaggering sense of entitlement, and an unwarranted self-satisfaction that brings to mind that sardonic line now popping up on T-shirts: “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.’’
But what makes Auger’s performance and this David J. Miller-directed New England premiere of “Vicuña’’ so darkly compelling is the knife-edge of danger the actor brings to the character of Seaman. Playwright Baitz is smart enough to suggest why Seaman would appeal to some voters, and to have him capable of deeply cynical observations that could pass for insight, as when the candidate proclaims that “the story of America’’ is that “the line between lies and fact — actually, there is no line,’’ or when he gives voice to his transactional, robber-baron view of the nation he seeks to lead: “There is only one American dream now. And it is to simply take what is left.’’
“Vicuña’’ premiered in Los Angeles shortly before the 2016 election, but after Trump won the presidency, Baitz revised it, adding a prologue and a chilling, dystopian epilogue that starkly spells out the price of complicity and insufficient resistance. (Baitz reported being attacked while he was standing outside a hotel in Washington in January 2017 by a drunken Trump supporter who gave a Nazi salute and made an anti-Semitic remark. The assault was classified as a hate crime by Washington police, according to Vanity Fair magazine.)
As “Vicuña’’ begins, Seaman is cajoling Iranian-Jewish tailor Anselm Kassar (a fine Robert Bonotto) into making him a bespoke suit, believing it will help him clinch a televised presidential debate with his female opponent and “close the deal’’ with voters. Anselm is ambivalent, but his Iranian-Muslim assistant, Amir Masoud (Jaime Hernandez), is not. He is livid about Seaman’s Islamophobic views, and wants no part of helping him get elected. Hernandez was overly passive during Act 1 of the performance I attended; if we are to see Seaman through Amir’s eyes, he needs to project more. The actor was much better in Act 2, summoning the requisite fury as Amir makes clear the stakes (for his own family, among many others) of Seaman’s rise.
And then there is Seaman’s daughter and campaign manager, Sri-Lanka (Srin Chakravorty, excellent). The character is a sympathetic reimagining of Ivanka Trump as someone possessing a conscience and a sense of shame. She is frustrated by her father’s lack of discipline as a candidate, but certain her father can gain ground with women by delivering a speech at Barnard College that displays “(t)he best version of yourself.’’ Sri-Lanka’s awakening will be a rude one and her guilt over enabling her father will be devastating, though it’s not clear why she was previously unable to see that a lack of discipline was the least of his flaws. Also bearing the guilt of not doing enough early enough is the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, Kitty Finch-Gibbon (a too-mannered Evelyn Holley), who does make a belated, very expensive effort to force Seaman out of the race.
Will he prove as impervious to pressure as he is to shame? It shouldn’t be ruled out. That’s the thing about Trump satires: They are unsettling precisely because they seem so close to actuality.
Play by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by David J. Miller. Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company. At Plaza Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 6. Tickets $30, 617-933-8600, www.zeitgeiststage.com