I Coulda Been A Kennedy
nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
August 17, 2006
Based on the sampling of shows I've caught so far in this year's FringeNYC, the current administration and its disastrous war are very much on the minds of many theatre artists. This, to my mind, is a laudable thing. What's been striking, however, is how confused our theatre seems to be about how to address the current maelstrom of events effectively. Apparently convinced that positing a clear line of political action is either too simplistic or artistically suspect, artists seem very good at finding different strategies for dramatizing the mess we've gotten ourselves into but seem incapable of suggesting any viable collective way out of it.
These thoughts ran through my mind while watching Dennis Trainor, Jr's ambitious new play I Coulda Been a Kennedy. Spanning 34 years in the life of its main character Devin O'Reilly (Noah Trepanier), from birth to possible death, Trainor's political drama is structured around the 17-year cycle of the Brood X cicada. Living under the Republican administrations of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush the Second in 1970, 1987, and 2004 respectively, Trainor's mainstream liberal characters are perpetually on the outs. They're prehistoric holdouts from another era, like the insects whose mating thrums underscore the action.
In tandem with this history of right-wing lies and lefty impotence, Trainor relates Devin's personal journey from great Celtic hope for his Irish-Catholic Long Island family to his plans for self-immolation and a suicide bombing in protest of...what exactly? That the American political system is obscenely unfair and real political change is impossible if we keep playing by its rules? Aside from being a highly debatable point, Ivy League–educated, middle class New York actors don't generally set themselves on fire simply because the system sucks, unless they're clinically insane. Since apart from a propensity for inappropriate cocktail conversation, Devin comes across as a perfectly nice fellow, this smacks of a playwright trying to orchestrate a shock ending. Not to mention that blowing things up is hardly the solution to our present crisis.
In fact much of the play strains credulity, the notable exception being Trainor's portrait of Devin's "Reagan rich" in-laws, Francis and Mary Greco (the marvelous Ray McDavitt and Mimi Cozzens). In these scenes he is able to get at something true about America's complex relationship to wealth and power. Dyed-in-the-wool Democrats who can afford to generously support various liberal causes because Francis has amassed a small fortune on Wall Street, the Grecos are quite happy with the way things are—they just want their guy in the White House. And making Francis a survivor of the World Trade Center disaster who refuses to discuss it neatly serves to underscore the American refusal to come to grips with either the traumas we've inflicted on others or the traumas we've had inflicted on us.
At the end of the play, a gun introduced earlier goes off, but the audience never learns who gets shot. I imagine this ambiguity is meant to be a statement that in a violence-soaked society like America all deaths are more or less equivalent, but it matters dramatically (and politically) who's on the receiving end of a bullet. Trainor's finale feels like a cheat—and a lost opportunity to say something concrete about the consequences of what we as a society have wrought.