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Open: 01/30/16- Close: 02/21/16 Chatting With The Tea Party
Reviewed for TheaterOnline.com By: Rachel Wohlander
Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Ph ©2017  Cast of CHATTING WITH THE TEA PARTY (L to R): Maribeth Graham, Richard Kent Green, John E. Brady, and Jeffrey C. Wolf

            In the documentary-style world premiere play Chatting With The Tea Party, playwright Rich Orloff acknowledges his New York liberal biases and sets out to discover what members of the Tea Party are really like. The play condenses over 63 hours of interviews conducted by Orloff between 2011-2012 into 110 minutes of informative parleys between the left-leaning writer and various Tea Party leaders and activists all over the country. Beginning with the premise that many liberals might rant and rave about the Tea Party without actually knowing any members personally, the play seeks to unveil the humanity beneath the stereotypes and propaganda. Every word the interviewees say in the play comes directly from real-life interviews.

            The amalgam of interviews are woven together through simple, smooth transitions in lighting (lighting and scenic design by Nick Francone) and costumes (costume design by Orli Nativ). Paul Girolamo's projection design helps to create the many settings. Three actors – John E. Brady, Maribeth Graham and Richard Kent Green -- play all the interview subjects and a few historical figures. Each delivers a consistently strong and dynamic performance. The dialogue is crisp and engaging. The interviews are mostly passionate conversations that hone in on why the speaker is invested in the topic, which lends the play a driving momentum. Everyone in this play is adamant about something. It gives the impression that, at least, both the liberals and conservatives portrayed are willing to get off the couch and fight for something. The clarity and humor with which a lot of fast-paced information is delivered is a credit to the playwright, actors and director Lynnette Barkley.

            The audience has a charming guide in the character of Rich (played by Jeffrey C. Wolf), the interviewer/playwright who connects the narrative with personal revelations and disclosures, similar stylistically to Sarah Koenig’s sensitive maneuvering of the subject matter of the Serial Season One podcast. His dialogue is riddled with witty asides and writer-y jokes that a New York theater audience will appreciate. Despite a sincere effort to dig for a common core of understanding, some stereotypes are reinforced. Rich reminds us several times that he couldn’t have made this up if he wanted to. One interviewee, Bob from the Bronx Tea Party chapter, says “there are powerful billionaires who resent our Constitution and who have formed an organization called the Council on Foreign Relations, which wants to put all of us into a worldwide prison called the New World Order.”

            Rich proves a diplomatic and compassionate listener to conservative concerns. The editing choices highlight idiosyncrasies and sometimes the admirable values of the interviewees. Some of the subjects interviewed prove surprisingly forgiving on topics like abortion; some support social security; an Idaho Tea Partier calls himself the “original environmentalist.” There are also the encounters where Rich and the interviewee must agree to disagree.

            For example, when a Phoenix Tea Partier advocating for a private fire department is perfectly willing to let his neighbor’s house burn if that neighbor doesn’t want to pay the fee, even if it endangers his own house next door. Or when Rich presents evidence to a Tennessee Tea Party Chairman showing that a regulation banning high-capacity gun magazines would benefit the general welfare, but the gun-owning conservative stands his ground against any regulation. Or when Rich shows the exact figures of the reduction in higher education funding for the school year and the interview subject replies, “Government funding to higher education never decreases, ever.” At one point, unable to control his anger at a particularly bull-headed interviewee, Rich articulates the tirade presumably on the tip of many liberal audience members’ tongues, only to confess he only actually constructed the argument in the car two hours after the interview in fine esprit d'escalier form.

            Every so often Rich is bombarded with skepticism of his Tea Party investigation by characters representing his Liberal Friends. One such liberal friend says, with regard to the Tea Party battle cry of being taxed enough already, “They don’t mind when the government’s giving them money.” And indeed Rich questions a Minneapolis Tea Party organizer about public money going to subsidize a privately owned stadium, and the lack of response from the Tea Party. Rich says, “It looks like the Tea Party gets upset if the money’s going to food stamps, but the stadium’s okay. Shouldn’t there be some outrage?” Some of the interview subjects admit to receiving government aid of some form (Rich defends them, saying why shouldn’t they benefit from a system they’ve paid into?). Some of them have personally witnessed real welfare fraud giving them reason to be suspicious. The phrase personal responsibility comes up often, as does mistrust of the government.

            Ultimately in their personal dealings, the Tea Party individuals presented come across as fair and decent. The play culminates in an important reversal where Rich is asked to stand before a Tea Party gathering and answer their questions about his experience conducting the interviews and how he will portray the subjects. A friend who saw the play with me said she came away wondering how a Tea Party member might write a play after interviewing liberals. I agree that it would be nice to see the perspective if the tables were turned.

            Orloff’s background is as a reporter, and while he endeavors to construct a compassionate portrayal of the Tea Party, this is not a news article it’s a play, and the characters seem to hold tight to their biases. If this play doesn’t disassemble those biases, it offers some insight into the polarized realities of this country and offers the humble hope that, when we make the effort to see what is human beneath a movement, we can still come to the table and chat. Catch this insightful and engaging world premiere at The Robert Moss Theater until February 21. Thursdays, February 4, 11, and 18 at 7PM; Fridays, February 5, 12, and 19 at 8PM; Saturdays, February 6, 13 and 20 at 8PM; Sundays, February 7, 14 and 21 at 3PM.


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Venue:
Robert Moss Theater @ 440 Studios : 440 Lafayette Street, 3rd Floor