That’s a good thing, because the people who would be put off by the title are the same ones with whom any conversation about some of the topics raised in the play would be as virulent and divisive as, well, some of the conversations that take place on stage.
Playwright Daniel Hurewitz’s biting, iconoclastic comedy takes place shortly after the passing of the titular First Lady, while her remains are lying (laying?) in state. Just a few blocks away, in the Palm Springs home of college dean Maggie Lessing (Debi Tinsley) and her husband Richard (Mark Sande), old friends are convening at a birthday celebration for David (Kiff Scholl), a gay, nebbish-y history professor for whom the only thing worse than turning 50 is the thought of having it overshadowed by Nancy Reagan’s funeral.
The timing is admittedly unfortunate for this particular gathering; Maggie, David, and his longtime “frenemy” Jason (Greg Ivan Smith) are veterans of the eighties’ culture wars, and their shared history – much of which centers around the AIDS crisis – resonates with ways in which Mrs. Reagan could be seen as an arch-nemesis. The occasion stirs up old memories, along with buried secrets and not-so-hidden resentments, and things are only made pricklier by the presence of Jason’s millennial boyfriend Kenny (Colbert Alembert), whose youthful perspective serves to exacerbate the tension, and the uninvited arrival of a student named Allison (Safiya Quinley), who demands that Dean Maggie hear her grievances about racism on campus. With his party falling apart, David’s long-seething anger at Mrs. Reagan – and his longing to rekindle the passion of his lost radical youth – inspires him to come up with a way to make his birthday meaningful after all.
There’s a lot in the soup that Hurewitz has mixed up, and it might seem like too much if it weren’t for the fact that it ends up being so delicious.
To be sure, it might be rough going at the start; there’s an acerbic, self-loathing quality to the wit of these characters that evokes – not accidentally, I’d guess – “The Boys in the Band,” a play which is also about a birthday party for an aging, bitter queen. Add to that the seemingly standard trope of the young boyfriend interloping among old gay friends, and you’re dangerously close to a tiresome formula.
But the playwright has put these pieces into place by shrewd design; while the cattiness of “The Boys” was rooted in the closet, for David and Jason – and even straight cis female ally Maggie – it springs from the bitterness of being freed from that closet only to watch half their generation die of a plague while Nancy and Ronnie responded with nothing but deafening silence. That makes all the difference.
Nancy’s close post-mortem proximity to the proceedings makes for a particularly apt catalyst in stirring up intergenerational discussions about the dark years of the epidemic; but just when it seems the play is going to content itself with the rehashing of ancient (if still important) history, it blindsides us with the I-will-not-be-ignored urgency of the here-and-now. By introducing an emissary from the front in today’s culture wars, it forces us to spot the differences and draw the parallels between the causes (and the activists fighting for them) of both the past and the present – and it challenges us even further to confront our own conflicted viewpoints by introducing race into the equation.
How they all deal with that – both from the older and the younger side of the equation – is what makes “Nancy F***ing Reagan” a fun ride. With all these heavy issues whirling around them, its characters respond by immediately finding their own stake in the game and making it all about them; that’s exactly what humans do, of course, and that’s why Hurewitz’s script can be so laugh-out-loud funny while still getting its points across about unrelentingly dire issues.
Buried under all the satire and snark, too, there is an exploration of the uncomfortable (for some, anyway) notions that, no matter how heinous a person’s actions may have been, forgiveness is necessary if we want to move forward (though sometimes, maybe, we have to make one final, dramatic statement before it happens), and that when it comes to changing the system, sometimes the choice between two courses of action should be “both.”
Such deceptively centrist-seeming viewpoints don’t distract, however, from the enjoyment we get from watching these characters spar throughout the action – and the actors who expertly play them. Scholl, as David, is the hub of the show, and cannily crafts his performance to highlight the constancy in his persona, the steadfast refusal to let go of something that matters to him – even if that means he spends a lot of time whining. Hilariously whining, to be clear; he does a great job of personifying that guy we all know, who we might even pity in some way because he always seems so damn miserable under all those quips and barbs, and letting us laugh both with and at him. Then he takes us along on a redemptive journey in which he allows himself to be as surprised by it as we are. It’s a funny performance, sure, but its deeper than it seems, and braver, too.
Tinsley, as Maggie, is an excellent counter to his energy, yet entwined with it, too, as she establishes a strong, grounding presence that somehow manages to persist even as a few setbacks (and a few more drinks) reveal a tempest within. Smith, as Jason, brings an archness that gives a touch of meanness to his wit, but he also brings a warmth that makes us like him anyway; Alembert, as his younger flame, makes it clear from his first entrance that he’s not just there to pose shirtless and say clueless things – he’s a passionate, intelligent, independent man, and it elevates this potential cliché of a character into a welcome and integral part of the action.
Sande – as hubby Richard, a recent retiree now diving into a writing career – gets to serve as a sort of chorus to all the turmoil, both part of and somehow removed from it, and delights us with his charm and authenticity as he comments on (both literally and through the contrast of his freshly-revived lust for life) the goings-on throughout; representing the generation on the other end of the spectrum, Quinley, as Allison, delivers a solid portrayal of a strong and impassioned woman of color that avoids turning her into a stereotype by showing us the not-quite-sure-of-herself young person underneath.
Add in unflappable TV reporter Erica (played with surgical skill by Amy Kersten), whose broadcasted new segments pop in every so often to keep everyone up to date on the status of Mrs. Reagan’s body, and you have a tight, talented, and hilarious ensemble cast; under the experienced directorial hand of L.A. theater veteran Larry Margo, they make “Nancy F***ing Reagan” a hilariously confrontational joy that is worthy of the boldness of its title.
“Nancy F***ing Reagan” runs through August 4 at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood. For details and more information go here.