“Vicuña,” the new play that opened Sunday at Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Calif., portrays a Donald Trump-like candidate in an “Emperor’s New Clothes” tale. The satire about a real estate tycoon and reality TV star turned presidential candidate could be perceived as a hatchet job. However, it offers an entertaining topical comedy on the surface, with glimpses into the climate of fear and xenophobia that has spread across America.
The improbable, uncontrollable Republican candidate here, Kurt Seaman (a name that results in sophomoric jokes that take away from the effort), bears an obvious resemblance to Trump. The mogul “wants to add the White House to his list of properties,” as one character notes. The Trumpisms include the well- respected daughter (called Srilanka here), ex-wives with names that evoke Trump’s, negative attitudes toward immigrants and even an uncomfortable feeling in his party that he will hurt them on Election Day.
“Vicuña” clearly evolved with the election since the Jon Robin Baitz play (his fourth world premiere for the Center Theatre Group) was drafted earlier this year. It takes place as preparations are under way for the third debate between Seaman (played by Harry Groener) and his unseen female opponent, who clearly did better in the first two debates.
Directed by Robert Egan, most of the play’s action takes place in a posh tailor’s atelier, where the character Anselm Kassar (played by Brian George), an Iranian Jewish immigrant, designs garments for presidents and world leaders that create the illusion of power and confidence. The character is based on an actual Washington, D.C., tailor named Georges de Paris, a Greek immigrant who crafted suits for presidents for decades.
Seaman decides that for his last debate he needs a magical, powerful suit made out of the finest vicuña (hence the name) for him by the great presidential tailor. “Clothing conveys credibility,” is the premise. He believes the polls are lying: “People are afraid to admit they are on my side.” However, just in case, this emperor wants new clothes.
The tailor decides, ignoring his personal feelings, to make a suit for a candidate that he finds repellent and make him more. He cannot resist the reflected glory of his powerful suits on the wannabe or truly powerful.
Seaman is at first delighted to meet the tailor’s apprentice, Amir Masoud (played by Ramiz Monsef), who is the son of immigrants. He tells him “Apprenticeship is good. It’s my thing.” But the candidate’s world view collides profoundly with this young Muslim man’s concepts of justice and America. The candidate actually comments that if people cannot make it in their own country and flee, “what kind of people are we letting in?”
Amir serves as the play’s conscience and challenges the candidate (and his daughter). He points out, “A suit can’t stand in for actual goodness and vision.” Amir’s character (like others in the play) is uneven and his actions do not always convey his feelings (like taking advantage of his prep school and Harvard University scholarships before flaunting his Marxist leanings.)
Srilanka (played by Samantha Sloyan) is tired defending her dad against his inappropriate comments. Initially, she tells Amir, “His message is lost when he is not ‘disciplined.’” The dutiful daughter even boasts that “when he’s elected he will be far more human than he’s being painted.” However, once he speaks positively about woman at her alma mater and then does a disparaging sexist interview, she can no longer ignore his inappropriate comments.
The Republican party leadership cannot ignore his “pitchfork campaign” and questionable opinions either. They offer Seaman billions to throw the debate and not become president. The real estate tycoon is now engaged in negotiations “to buy and sell the presidency.”
The final scene is the debate, with the candidate and his exquisite vicuña suit. The final act of the real election is yet to be played. But this play’s final act is veers into darker territory and an “emperor has no clothes” type moment.
The Vicuña cast is excellent. Groener avoids the obvious parody, but conveys the appropriate pomposity. Sloyan does a great job displaying early confidence crumbling to vulnerability of Srilanka’s campaign life. However, the key character is Monsef’s Amir, and the actor is up to the task of carrying the audience on his journey challenging the candidate’s beliefs and actions.
“Vicuña” portrays Trump in an “Emperor’s New Clothes” type tale, opening one week before the election. Baitz’ new play may not have a long shelf life now. However, it raises some serious issues that are not going away on Nov. 9. Maybe the play will be dusted off years from now and presented as a dramedy based on actual people. But, in the meantime, the reality is a little too real as election day looms.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Performance Oct. 30
Center Theatre Group: Vicuña
Los Angeles Times: Q&A The timely new play ‘Vicuña’ is, and isn’t, about Donald Trump
Photos of Groener (top) and Monsef and Sloyan by Craig Schwartz. courtesy of Center Theatre Group.