Jackalope Theatre Company’s new play about a doomed third-party candidacy offers a bright outlook in dark political times.
Third-party candidates can all too often seem like they’re the “new exercise regime” of American politics. People make lots of noise about ditching the two-party system, about finally, this time, voting for someone who isn’t a Democrat or a Republican… only to end up voting for their preferred political party when it becomes clear just how long the odds of a third-party candidacy really are. Promises are easy. It’s doing stuff that’s the hard part.
Such was the case in 1980 when Illinois Congressman John B. Anderson ran for President as an Independent. Despite the hope that his long-shot candidacy could spur a movement, Anderson lost, badly, coming in third behind incumbent Jimmy Carter and the winner, a Hollywood celebrity dismissed by intellectuals as a facile, gibberish-spouting idiot. (Lest the current parallels go too far, Ronald Reagan had previously served two terms as the Governor of California. 1980 was the tragedy; 2017 is the farce.)
The weeks and months leading up to that election night are the setting for Patricia Cotter’s winning (and straightforwardly-named) new dramedy 1980 (Or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson). The story concerns four staff members of the Anderson campaign’s Boston office, an empty yet somehow still cramped storefront (set by Sotirios Livaditis). Initially, the outpost is led by Brenda (Evelyn Gaynor), a big-hearted Southie bartender, and Robin (Bryce Gangel), a ritzy, ruthless rich girl. In the play’s opening moments, Brenda is trying to get their new student worker Kathleen (Hillary Horvath) to hop on the phones and make cold calls, only for Kathleen’s intense social anxiety to win out. All of these characters are white, which leads to some immediate tension when Will (Sheldon Brown), a black man from the Chicago office, arrives to whip their operation into shape.
The play emphatically traces the fault lines of identity and experience that define both the characters and the conflicts that arise between them. And while the play’s themes are often made quite explicit, Cotter has rooted her script with a sense of affection for these spiky, argumentative dreamers. Director Kaiser Zaki Ahmed matches that affection with some of his own, and while the play never quite feels as funny as it’s trying to be, it’s carried along by its careful plotting, rich characterizations and generosity of spirit. And it helps that the cast is uniformly excellent.
The play ends on election night, which is to say that it ends on a downer. After all that noise about voting third party, America went right back to its old habits. All the staffers’ hard work has really been for nought. It’s morning again in America, and the hangover looks like it’s a gonna be a real humdinger. Some of the characters respond with resignation, others by jumping ship entirely. But Cotter also delivers a bit of well-earned hope. Sure, the big stuff didn’t work out this time, but if one person can change for the better, then maybe a nation can too?
Okay. Okay. So probably not. But it’s better than nothing, right? At this point, we’ll take any hope we can get.
Jackalope Theatre Company at Broadway Armory Park. By Patricia Cotter. Directed by Kaiser Zaki Ahmed. With Sheldon Brown, Bryce Gangel, Evelyn Gaynor, Hillary Horvath. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.