nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 13, 2010
Remember the election of 2008? To me, it seems almost a lifetime ago: the way that Barack Obama galvanized a large section of the American populace; the way that it really seemed like the cynical game-playing that had come to characterize too much of American political action might be over and done with.
Stephen Padilla's Picking Palin reminds us of this hopeful moment in our recent history, and it's instructive and even a little bit wistful to remember it. But as its title tells us, the main story of this play—which is the first on my menu at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival—is how a governor that hardly anybody had ever heard of became the most talked-about Republican in the country in about a week. Padilla tells the story of Palin's rise matter-of-factly and concisely, giving his characters room to bring out the questions and doubts and concerns that were on so many people's minds after her nomination for the Vice Presidency was assured. This is no Tina Fey sketch—Padilla doesn't think that Sarah Palin's emergence as one of her Party's standard bearers is particularly funny (and he's right)—but neither is it a dry, academic work or a docudrama that purports to tell some untold story. Picking Palin is, rather, a portrait of how politics works in the United States nowadays, and if it makes you feel queasy or even a bit ashamed to look at it, well, that's the sad comment on our broken system that I suspect the playwright is going for.
The drama unfolds in a Ritz-Carlton hotel suite in Phoenix, Arizona. It's the last week of August, 2008, and the Democrats are basking in the glow of Obama's popularity as they go about their business of anointing him their candidate at their National Convention. The Republicans, meanwhile, are looking for a game-changer; they're also still looking for a running mate for John McCain, who surprisingly has not yet made up his mind about who will be his VP. Four politicos—Neil (who is in charge, and has McCain's ear), Bob (who represents the Christian Right and the so-called "base," and has Karl Rove's ear), Jan (a long-time McCain supporter), and Paul (the most moderate among the group)—have been charged with finding a Republican Vice Presidential nominee. Even though we know from the get-go how this particular drama will play out, Padilla keeps the tension from flagging.
I don't know how close to actual people these characters are intended to be, or how close what's depicted here is to the actual process. What's important is that Picking Palin feels true, and by not writing about specific individuals, Padilla gets license to probe aspects of a process that seems to put winning elections ahead of doing the right thing for the country. It's interesting that, near the end of the play, Neil reminds everyone that they've all had a chance to share their views; true, as far as it goes, but only Neil has had a chance to convey those views to McCain. Is that democracy in action? Paul says, a little bitterly, that Republicans don't recognize dissent, but rather disloyalty. Point taken.
Padilla has directed Picking Palin himself, and he's done so commendably. The four actors—Stephen Gleason (Neil), Keith Herron (Paul), Bill Timoney (Bob), and Georgette Reilly Timoney (Jan)—deliver strong, committed performances that make these characters feel fully dimensional despite the fact that we know nothing about them apart from their politics. Gette Levy's set feels authentic enough, and the uncredited costumes tell us a great deal about the characters when we look at them.
Picking Palin does something that too few contemporary American dramas do, which is to reflect seriously on our current political culture and raise questions—some admittedly unanswerable—about how things got the way they did in this country. In a time when news gets stale within hours instead of days (Steven Slater is so last Monday, isn't he?), theatre that makes us focus on recent events with intelligence and clarity is certainly welcome. FringeNYC is off to an intriguing start.