Through June 29
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St., N.W.
In Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s new political comedy “The Totalitarians,” it takes three words — “freedom from fear” — to turn a lopsided election around.
Former roller derby queen and all-around loose cannon Penelope Easter has political aspirations. Though she has zero knowledge of the issues and stands for nothing, Penny is undeterred. She’s rightfully confident that her big hair and her gay husband’s enormous fortune will open doors. But still, she needs help connecting with voters, low information and otherwise. That’s where Francine Jefferson comes in. Francine is a wannabe political operative with a talent for words. She believes that one killer speech with a catchy slogan repeatedly delivered by an appropriately passionate Penny could put this unlikely candidate on the path to becoming Nebraska’s lieutenant governor.
Meanwhile Francine’s doctor husband Jeffrey wants her to have a baby and stay at home. Besides, he doesn’t trust Penelope — even less when his young terminally ill patient Ben warns him of Penelope’s connection with a nefarious 1 percent cabal seeking to control all American politics. He joins militant Ben in trying to snuff out Penelope’s campaign.
Nachtrieb is tall (6’6”) and rangy. At 39, the gay playwright retains boyish charm and exudes a quiet intelligence. The inspiration for the “The Totalitarians,” he explains, came from a frustration with the language of politics and rhetoric; and whether anyone is actually saying anything or is it all just sound bites? He felt a need to dive into that.
“Penelope is very seductive cipher,” he says. “Whether she is left or right is uncertain. Seems like she’s fighting for something but you can’t pin down on what she stands for on any issue. Still Francine’s dream gets married to Penny’s. She writes some soaring, beautiful imagery reminiscent of early Obama’s — inspirational but with few specific references.”
And though Nachtrieb purports Penelope is not a commentary on any single party or person, her over-the-top vulgarity definitely come off more like Sarah Palin than Elizabeth Warren. Penelope is so outrageous, says the playwright, that in a different production she could easily be played by a male actor in drag.
“There is an attraction between Francine and Penelope. And the dynamic between Jeffrey and Ben is just shy of being a gay relationship. There are those clandestine meetings in cruisy parks. And the long hernia examination that Jeffrey gives to Ben is interesting.”
Commissioned by the New Play National Network, “The Totalitarians” is currently undergoing a year-long rolling premiere that kicked off at Southern Rep in New Orleans and is now playing at Woolly Mammoth. Later this year it will play at Z Space in San Francisco where Nachtrieb is playwright in residence.
Woolly’s production is staged by talented gay playwright and director Robert O’Hara. The cast features local actors Emily Townley and Dawn Ursula as Penelope and Francine, respectively. Jeffrey is played by Sean Meehan who played Morton in HBO’s production of “The Normal Heart,” gay dramatist Larry Kramer’s seminal AIDS play. Chicago actor Nick Loumos plays Ben. It’s Nachtrieb’s second collaboration with Woolly Mammoth. The first was his dark, apocalyptic comedy, “boom.”
Growing up in affluent Marin County, the suburb across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Nachtrieb who’d been bullied in middle school, found a safe haven participating in musical theater. He majored in theater and biology at Brown University. While there, he came out during a production of “West Side Story.” (“All the other Jets were gay. I thought I must be too.”) He returned to the Bay Area where he entered the San Francisco State MFA Playwriting program, and earned his MFA in creative writing in 2005.
Today Nachtrieb lives in San Francisco’s Mission District with his partner of 13 years, Mark Marino, a nurse. Sometimes his relationship and feelings are reflected in his work, sometimes through straight characters: “Francine and Jeffrey talk about having children and the challenges of busy work schedules. Those are discussions my partner and I have, too.
“And for instance, Ben, the young activist, has a monologue that isn’t just about wanting equality but sometimes you want a little vengeance as well for being treated badly.”
Next up, Nachtrieb is working on a new play concerning house tours. “It’s all about shame,” he says, “and the pleasures of hiding things.”