At election time, politicians go to great lengths to present themselves as leaders and agents of change, but the more bizarre aspects of recent national campaigns got California playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb thinking. His dark comedy about American politics, The Totalitarians, premieres this week at the Mid-City Theatre as part of Southern Rep's 2013-2014 season. The play was conceived during the 2012 election cycle amid the sniping and snarking of the Republican primary debates and the myth-making rhetoric of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign. The candidates, Nachtrieb thought, were talking a lot but saying very little.
"It's definitely a response to all that," Nachtrieb says of the play. "It is an exploration of the language of politics and the absurdity of it, really looking at how we debate things and articulate our opinions, and what we believe to be the way we're supposed to talk about politics."
The Totalitarians, directed by Nachtrieb's long-time collaborator Kenneth Prestininzi, centers on Penelope Easter, a strong-willed, slightly unhinged mother running for state office in Nebraska. Penelope (Judith Hawking) is floundering on the campaign trail until she teams up with Francine (Jessica Podewell), a frustrated campaign manager who hopes to channel Penelope's enthusiasm into a victory for both of them. Despite Penelope's lack of polish, Francine pushes her candidate to the front of the pack by crafting a particularly inspiring — though ultimately nonsensical — speech that rallies voters.
Nachtrieb says the character of Penelope is a composite of many different American politicians, but he acknowledges a resemblance to a certain folksy hockey mom from the 2008 presidential election.
"It's not Sarah Palin by any means," Nachtrieb says. "But I think there's something in the Sarah Palin story that I latched onto, this outsider who instantly becomes the front-runner, someone with this magnetic and really charged energy that people respond strongly to."
Nachtrieb didn't set out to lampoon specific people or political parties. His target is the state of political discourse in America, where empty words and jingoistic rhetoric are valued more than facts. It's a shallow and superficial means of communication, Nachtrieb says, and it trickles down to voters, not only in public discourse, but in people's personal lives as well.
In the play, Francine's marriage begins to crumble when her husband Jeffrey (Leon Contavesprie), a doctor, expresses doubts about supporting Penelope. One of his patients (Ben Carbo) is obsessed with conspiracy theories and insists Francine is a despot in disguise who will transform Nebraska into a totalitarian state if elected. Jeffrey gets suspicious, and each character is forced to take sides.
"The inability to compromise is astounding, and I think it's because no one's able to say what they feel anymore," Nachtrieb says. "Everyone in this play wants to be validated, and everyone wants to do something important, even as they sometimes do the wrong thing."
Nachtrieb has a knack for creating strong characters, as seen in previous works such as 2008's Boom, a post-apocalyptic sex comedy that got high marks from The New York Times and The Washington Post. Nachtrieb was accepted to the New Dramatists, a residency program based in New York City that provides resources for promising playwrights to create new work.
The Totalitarians was developed through the New Dramatists and commissioned by the National New Play Network, a program funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that creates rolling world premieres of new plays through a network of theaters, including Southern Rep, ensuring a work will be staged at least three times in its first year. Southern Rep is the first company to produce The Totalitarians, and subsequent productions are scheduled at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., and Z Space in San Francisco. The San Francisco show will be a homecoming of sorts for Nachtrieb, as he recently was awarded a three-year residency at Z Space, also funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
"Andrew Mellon has been basically paying me to be a playwright for the last five years," Nachtrieb says. "It's an amazing gift. Everyone says you're not supposed to be able to make a living doing this, and at the moment, I am."
Nachtrieb would like to see the play produced in New York and thinks it could be adapted into a film. He's working on several new projects, including a musical comedy.
While its humor is offbeat, Nachtrieb hopes The Totalitarians will bring some perspective to the increasingly divisive political landscape.
"We're all implicated in the state of politics," Nachtrieb says. "We're all a part of it, and we all participate in it. If we can agree that we're all part of the same system, then that's more important to me than just making fun of people."