The Adult in the Room

2 out of 5 stars
The Adult in the Room
Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Alex Huntsberger

How do you solve a dramaturgical problem like Nancy Pelosi? Since rising to become Minority Leader in 2004 and Speaker of the House in 2006, Pelosi has been ever-present but hard to pin down. A so-so retail politician but a superb caucus wrangler, she’s led the Democrats to landslide victories and devastating defeats. She’s persistent and unflappable, yet she never seems to truly stand for any one thing: a successful politician’s politician in an anti-politician era. She has rarely inspired much love from the public but has roused oceans of hatred from the left, right and center; as the most powerful woman in politics, she’s had enough dung slung her way to fertilize the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Pelosi contains the kinds of contradicting multitudes that drive aspiring dramatists wild, while somehow remaining just south of interesting.

In his one-woman show The Adult in the Room, Bill McMahon approaches this challenge by essentially having actress Orlagh Cassidy read Pelosi’s Wikipedia page out loud for an hour. While participating in Instagram Live Q&A, Cassidy’s Pelosi breezily recounts her life story and fends off distractions from the President’s tweets and the Congressional Progressive Caucus alike. It’s like watching a real person perform the role of a display in Disney’s Hall of Presidents. Cassidy captures Pelosi’s mannerisms well, especially her awkward smile, but she can’t get beneath Pelosi’s skin—not that the play itself displays much interest in doing so. The script is pure hagiography, smug and self-congratulatory. The GOP could tour it around to schools and depress voter turnout for decades to come.

Younger or more left-leaning audience members—not to mention any conservatives who somehow wander in—may find the show’s politics grating, but audiences of all ages and political alignments will be disappointed by the thinness of its analysis. Aside from a brief reflection on bills that Pelosi has failed to pass (with a special emphasis on gun control), the show takes a kid-gloves approach to the famously tough-skinned Speaker. A story about Pelosi’s AIDS advocacy when she first arrived in Congress, for example, is placed alongside her condescension towards Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s outspoken style with nary a thought about how those two things might conflict.

With her emphasis on party cohesion and well-honed knack for stamping out drama, Pelosi is presented here as dead set against impeaching Donald Trump—until a last-minute twist spins her around with such force that it’s shocking she doesn’t topple over. The show presents this reversal as a moment of pure principle, ignoring the kind of clear-eyed realpolitik it’s been praising her for throughout. One gets the feeling that The Adult in the Room was written and ready to go with an anti-impeachment message until, at the 11th hour, everything changed. But that’s Nancy Pelosi for you: The harder you try to hold her in place, the likelier she is to slip through your grasp.

Victory Gardens Theatre. By Bill McMahon. Directed by Heather Arnson and Conor Bagley. With Orlagh Cassidy. Running time: 1hr 15mins. No intermission.


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