ArticlesReview: Divisive Politics and Dead Presidents in “The War Party”

Photo by Martha Granger

(This review was originally posted on Manhattan with a Twist on October 19, 2019.)

In a century where American citizens are bitterly divided over politics and uncharacteristically laser-focused on the upcoming midterms, The War Party (playing for five performances in The New York International Fringe Festival) couldn’t be more timely. Playwright Vincent Delaney chooses an intriguing protagonist for his portrayal of this contentious era: an incumbent Republican Senator suffering a crushing defeat to a Democratic challenger, getting drunk with one of her interns in her campaign war room.

A theater audience in New York is likely to be dominated by people who identify with liberal beliefs, and the idea of a Republican incumbent toppling to an insurgent Democrat is catnip to eager and worried progressives counting down the seconds until November 6th. But The War Party complicates this initial thrill by making Laura Smith (a fearless Jennifer Piech) arresting to watch. Storming across the stage in her pantsuit and hair twisted in a tight bun, swearing, and grabbing every cheap champagne bottle she can find, she is a woman who officially has no f**** left to give. Bitter and angry, bitingly funny and caustic, the soon-to-be-ex-Senator (of which state, we’re never told) is a protagonist who wins the audience to her side, even those who would find her politics repugnant.

The War Party is careful not to embellish on Senator Smith’s specific policies and beliefs. She sneers at her “tax and spend” colleagues in the opposing party and baldly uses some Latinx stereotypes when trying to bait her intern Jessie (Odelia Avadi, bursting with energy), but her votes and core issues are only alluded to. Also alluded to is a recent personal tragedy in Laura’s life, which she and Jessie reveal later in the play, leaving me wonder if the playwright thought a sad backstory was necessary to make a conservative woman sympathetic.

The extended conversation between Laura and Jessie is interrupted by Laura’s diabetes-induced hallucinations of FDR (William Youmans). Despite being on the opposite side of the political spectrum, this imagined FDR has a lot in common with Laura – filled with regret, longing for a time when hatred didn’t dominate political discourse. These interludes have a quieter intensity than the main action with Laura and Jessie, allowing the audience time to linger on important questions while creating the unsettling feeling that something isn’t quite right…and not just because Laura’s bonding with a Democrat.

Several important scenes in The War Party take place when characters are sitting and lying on the floor, whether under the influence of alcohol or simply exhausted. Unfortunately, the seats in the audience are clustered together where only people in the first two rows can witness all the action. Even craning my neck, I couldn’t see the actors during several key dramatic moments.

The War Party struggles with fitting life-altering epiphanies for its characters in a ninety-minute run time. Some of their choices, particularly Jessie’s, feel too abrupt to be plausible. Without spoiling the ending, one of her decisions may have worked better if the story had more time to breathe.

Despite some of the restrictions built into the play’s run time, The War Party is an exciting play with a strong voice that seems inspired by the playwright’s personal views without being didactic. The show is definitely worth seeing, as long as you’re sitting in the first two rows.

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