nytheatre.com review by Cory Conley
June 13, 2012
You've definitely heard this one before. A maverick, war-hero senator from a Southwestern state has just been chosen as the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, and he has a problem: the conservatives who activate the party are sure he isn't one of them. He also can't control his temper, even when dealing with important figures he needs on his side. The only hope of unifying his party—and winning the election—may rest in his potential running mate: a young, saucy female governor with a high-plains accent and a penchant for insipid, outrageous remarks.
Except for the ending (America elected its first black president), this was the story of the 2008 presidential campaign, in which John McCain of Arizona battled many of these forces inside his party. It's also the plot of RINO, a new play by Zack Calhoon that's showing as part of the Democracy Festival at the Brick Theater. I haven't mentioned that other combustible element of the GOP known as the Tea Party, which hadn't yet been formed in 2008, but it's been thrown into the pot, too. And then, finally, there's the thrust of the play's action, also inspired by the tempestuous contest four years ago: the daughter problem.
Halley, the daughter of our hero senator, is living it up in New York City, where she bounces from party to party with her salty Brooklyn-bred pal Isabella and the prim princess named Stacy. Her escapades have a habit of winding up on gossip sites, much to the chagrin of Senator Harrison's high-strung chief advisor, Mordecai. Eventually, she unloads her thoughts on the campaign in an internet post, and what follows is an inquiry into what it all means for the present, and future, of the Republican Party.
The realism that washes through RINO's plot emphatically does not extend to its tone. From the opening scene (a lively video interview between Senator Harrison and the tenacious anchor of "Lion News"), the play unfolds with the quick patter of the absurd, pushing its characters to heightened and often outlandish encounters. The script also has its share of wordplay, from a far right wing, anti-contraception candidate named "Valorum" to its dismissal of "Founding Fathers MILFs."
Neither the plot, nor the satirical jabs, will seem terribly new to followers of politics or even casual watchers of late-night television. And ultimately, RINO (which stands, by the way, for "Republican in Name Only") is unable to transcend its sketch comedy surface and delve very deep into the real, breathing lives of its people. The most compelling scenes are the two that set aside the gags and show us the toll of the campaign on its families—one between Mordecai and his wife, and one near the end of Act I that offers a first glimpse of Senator Harrison and Halley together.
Much stage time is devoted to the antics of Halley and her friends, and a lot more is devoted to yet another parody of Sarah Palin, in the guise of North Dakota's governor Glenda Towers. It should be noted that the impersonation, by Meredith Howard, is dead-on. But its overuse is an example of how RINO feels more like an extended pastiche of satirical styles than a fully realized drama.
Sarah Skeist is perfectly cast as Halley, and she convincingly portrays the transformation from party girl to serious-minded surrogate. Arthur Harold stands out as an old-guard Senate Republican jockeying for a pick as Vice President. Kate Siepert, as Isabella, has been given more challenges than anyone else in the play—including a bout of audience interaction at the top of Act 2 that felt overlong and unnecessary—and with her energy, she just about meets them.
According to the program, RINO is based on Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One, and this is true only in the loosest sense; Halley is a clear stand-in for Prince Hal, and Isabella for Falstaff, while a few of the situations have vague analogues. But Shakespeare knew that at the heart of politics is the passion and drive of genuine, complex people. RINO too often misses that point. There are isolated moments of both wit and wisdom here, but they've been drowned out by a frenetic absurdity and a forward action that only rehashes the basics of a story we already knew. It also illuminates a sad truth: when it comes to presidential politics in 2012, there's nothing as absurd as the real thing.