Anne Washburn writes some of the most intriguing plays of recent times, usually saying something interesting but in a strange, off-kilter way that heightens the story. Unfortunately, Shipwreck, the ‘Donald Trump play’, as it’s known, hasn’t managed to harmonize the ‘things to say’ with the ‘strange’ in a way that makes three hours of thinking about Cheeto Mussolini worthwhile. The messages Washburn finds important to share with us are conveyed mainly in monologues and often told directly to the audience, rather than through character interaction, a contrivance that often seems like cheating. The expected weirdness from her works comes in random spurts, and while some of it works, some of it really doesn’t, and all of it would be better suited to a framework built for the more fantastical aspects.
I was still open-minded and hoping to find deeper meaning, perhaps in the setting – a remote farmhouse, a new acquisition of one of the couples, during a severe snowstorm where they hadn’t stocked up on food. The group is forced to eat old frozen hotdogs and use ketchup as a main ingredient in pasta, which could indicate the kind of desperate trouble we’re all in. Yet the farmhouse scenes – the vast majority of the play – mainly feature the friends talking, complaining, arguing about politics and rehashing the same kinds of statements most of us have given or heard for the past three years. In the rare instances when they say something new – like when Khalid Abdalla’s character asks whether, since nothing else has saved the world, maybe this Dark Wizard is actually the answer – it feels like nonsense. His character seems like a fairly together dude; surely he knows that we’ve tried literally nothing to try to save the world, so what on earth would persuade him to believe a farfetched mysticism that’s so ridiculous?
Despite strong acting throughout (and really good accent work all around, so pleased), the only ‘normal’ character that had a real effect was Fisayo Akinade as a black child (and then adult) adopted by a conservative white family. I wish there was more of him and his story; perhaps it wouldn’t have felt so random and the ‘payoff’ realization at the end so underwhelming.
Because so much of the play is straightforward, mostly unoriginal talking points, the trademark Washburn bits we do get feel entirely out of place. And not in a good ‘oh this is dramatically jarring’ kind of way, but in a ‘why hasn’t the entire show been this absurdist’ kind of way. Although I did not think the battle royale between George W. Bush and Trump worked (and it went on way too long), I still appreciated that they were doing something different. The device with James Comey coming to dinner felt a bit underdeveloped, but his scenes with a golden-brushed Caligula-like Trump character were effective. I would have loved if Elliot Cowan played this crazy emperor-god looking dude the entire show, even though at times, when his voice echoed the exact vocal inflections that Cadet Bone Spurs does, I threw up in my mouth a little, and even though associating his muscular physique with the president’s is too kind. These scenes give the kind of fascinating take on this situation we expected from a Washburn show, not one that is 90% talking to us about how bad things are and how we are probably part of the problem.
And I am so sick of all the clichés. I’m sick of the clichés about why people voted for a Curdled Orange Julius. Oh, you’re scared of immigrants hurting the economy? Well, you’re an idiot; should I feel sorry for your ignorance or just keep being angry? I’m sick of the clichés about how terrible white liberals are. Yes white women are hella annoying but it’s not original or funny to have a white liberal woman character who isn’t perfect but who tries to do the right thing, and to use her mistakes to lambast all liberals. Isn’t trying to be a good person and an ally better than openly being a shitty person? Sure they all desperately need to be sent copies of “So You Want To Talk About Race” but their need for some racial education doesn’t make them worse than racists.
This kind of screwed up discourse we have in society, with demanding perfection from those trying to be decent humans while allowing shitty humans to be as shitty as they want, leads me to my biggest problem with this play. I am tired of hearing that liberals may be the problem, or that we are the ones who have to try harder to connect with republicans/Trumplethinskin supporters and try to see things from their perspectives, to try to get out of our bubbles and understand the other side. BULLSHIT. No one ever asks Fox News viewers to get out of their bubbles, and their bubbles aren’t even escapable; they are made of cement. No one ever asks the people who think that black people all get free college or that jews control all the money and the government or that homosexuality is god’s punishment for women in the workplace or that killing refugee babies brings them closer to Jesus to even take a peek outside their fucked up bubbles. No, it’s always the people who give a shit about decency for all humans that are told it’s our responsibility to understand why these people hate minorities and women and can’t think rationally about anything. I am goddamn sick of it. It doesn’t make you shrewd or sensible to again ask ‘but maybe it’s liberals who are the problem’ and not ‘but maybe conservatives are literally destroying the world with their ignorance and hate?’ It makes you lazy, irresponsible, and negligent at best. I still cannot believe that this seminal, first major play about Fuckface Von Clownstick is offering these same tired excuses. And that’s my main problem with it.
Also three hours thinking about the Tangerine Tornado is absurd.
Honestly, the worst part wasn’t the general disappointment or the revulsion at having to think about Toilet Emoji President for three hours. It was the cigarette smoke that overwhelmed the theatre. We saw up in the circle, which you have to enter from a different door from street level. Those doors are open during preshow and the interval, and asshats are literally smoking in the doorways, and asshat staff are doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to keep them away from the entrances. So their asshat smoke wafted clear up the stairs and into the entire circle, so badly that I had trouble breathing at times, and I don’t even have asthma. Preshow, they did the same for the general entrance and the lobby. DO BETTER.