ANN ARBOR – At times ridiculously funny, at others far too real for the current state of politics, "The Totalitarians" proves to be a timely meditation about where we are as a country and the often farcical realities that lie therein.
Written by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb in 2014, it's clear that the playwright may have been just ahead of the times, his finger on the pulse of where we would be in 2018. Then again, maybe it was written as a fantasy, something neither he nor anyone else could believe would actually become a reality. Having seen the play, I'm betting on the former.
Theatre NOVA's production of "The Totalitarians" runs through Sept. 30, and while it's short notice for some, it is well worth making the time to see it while you still can. The four members of the cast are charming and perfect in their respective roles. Sayre Fox plays Francine, an overly ambitious political operative who has put her heart and soul into helping Penelope Easter (Diane Hill, uproariously hilarious and over-the-top in the perfect way), a politician who is, let's just say, not the most qualified. Francine is focused on writing the best speech she possibly can, rather than caring too much about the fact that Penelope may do more harm than good if elected.
Rounding out the cast are Joe Zarrow as Jeffrey, Francine's husband, a doctor, who has a very Chris Parnell way about him (I mean that as a compliment), and Connor Forrester as Ben, an extremist who believes that Penelope might just be the antichrist. He seduces Jeffrey into joining his cause at a routine physical exam, and thus, (dark) comedy ensues.
At times, the humor borders on ridiculous, even absurd at times, and yet it never feels that far from reality, which might cause you to question yourself after laughing at brilliant, timely lines like, "Freedom from fear," "A silent but deadly war" and "Violence. We should start a war on that." You could argue that "The Totalitarians" is, in many ways, not unlike Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," though on a smaller scale. (Rather than the world being at risk of nuclear war, here, we're focused simply on the local politics of rural Nebraska.)
The ending might veer a bit too far into the unbelievable; the implied violence does not exactly mix well with the humor that "The Totalitarians" establishes in its nearly two-hour run time, but the final scene between Francine and Jeffrey hits just the right chord. Still, the play overall is a joy to watch. Each actor brings their own style of comedy to their roles: Fox mostly plays the straightlaced character as she tries desperately to create order from chaos; Hill clearly relishes every bit of ridiculous dialogue she's given as Penelope and perfectly captures the conviction and confusion Penelope has at the words coming out of her own mouth; Zarrow is lovably just trying to do the right thing and failing earnestly; and Forrester has a lot of tricky dialogue to expel and does so with ease and style. (There are several scenes where he appears on television ads in an orange ski mask spouting facts, which are mostly inaudible by design. It never got old.)
If the play is uncomfortable at times, it is only the result of how closely it resembles the world in which we live. I would not consider this escapist entertainment, but I would say that in times like these, comedy is always welcome. Sometimes the only way out is to look at the absurdity of human nature, relish in it (temporarily) and hope that we can learn from past mistakes. "The Totalitarians" offers the possibility of hope simply by suggesting that we consider our actions and thoughts before acting impulsively. That's certainly something we could all benefit from, especially our politicians.