In this week’s New York magazine, Rebecca Traister writes, about America during the Trump administration, “The fantasy that there are bulwarks in place—individuals or institutions—has been correctly obliterated, leaving little barrier between America’s people and an awareness of their vulnerability to a plunderous ruling class. . . . Those who had been privileged enough to snuggle warm and dumb beneath the blankets of an imagined postfeminist, post-civil-rights, post-Obergefell, post-Obama Camelot found themselves suddenly exposed: cold, shivering, and wide-eyed with fear and realization that the system they’d been taught responds to the will of the people was in fact designed to be able to suppress it.”
In Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck (directed and adapted for audio by Saheem Ali and distributed as a three-episode podcast), it’s the imagined Donald Trump who seems to grasp this dynamic the most clearly. “Our verities are featherlight,” says Trump (a gleeful Bill Camp) to James Comey (Joe Morton, relishing every syllable in the bravura denunciation Comey never made) in a spookily sinister version of the infamous dinner at which the president asked his FBI director to pledge loyalty. In Angels in America-esque moments of historical fantasia, Donald Trump and George W. Bush (Phillip James Brannon) duke it out for the rights to the Oval Office, and Comey says all the things he might have swallowed at that dinner, and Trump laughs in his face. (Ali gets sharp stylistic contrast between the domestic scenes and the political ones, with adroit use of Palmer Hefferan’s soundscape and directing the actors in entirely different registers.)
Where the rest of the characters are still grappling with the “how did this happen” aspect of Trump’s presidency, Trump himself seems to recognize the stakes. (It is a piece of irony somewhat lost in the audio production that all the characters with whom Trump interacts–Comey, 2003’s George W. Bush, and Trump’s secretary–are imagined here as Black. That irony is gestured to and underscored in the moments when the other white characters fumble in talking about race; Allie later asserts that “all the actual Black people in the room are imaginary.”)
The privileged, urban, mostly white liberals who comprise most of the company feel vulnerable, yes, but there’s still some intellectual pleasure in the debate, in the self-chastising for not being political enough, in the earnest efforts to understand what’s happened. Their outrage is performative; the stakes aren’t quite real yet. “Maybe modern democracy is a failed experiment,” says Luis (Raul Esparza, giving just the right edge to the play’s (a)moral center, the character who’s used to being the smartest guy in the room), as part of confessing why he, a wealthy, gay Latinx immigrant lawyer, in fact voted for Trump–which he’s admitting for the first time even to his partner. “When the framers founded a nation…not controlled exclusively by the wealthy and powerful was that perhaps idiotic.” But they can’t quite conceive the fact that the system might in fact be working entirely as it was intended–and that for the most part, they’ll continue to benefit from it. That revelation is a truth too far. When Allie (Brooke Bloom), who thinks the fact that she is “never steering” when she opens her mouth is part of her appeal, can’t see the difference between white supremacy and majority rule, the others shout her down–but at the same time, they’re not doing anything to change the situation in which they find themselves.
The piece bills itself as “A History Play About 2017,” and–as both Washburn and Traister capture–it’s amazing, the compression of time in the era in which we live. March of 2020 feels like a lifetime ago, let alone the stubborn, spoiled naïveté of a group of upper-middle-to-upper-class liberals who are already growing weary (or, some of them, strangely exhilarated by the license for outrage) in this very early moment of the Trump administration.
Though exactly how early is perhaps the play’s first clue that it’s not going to be quite as literal and realistic an interrogation of white liberal certainties as it seems.The play is set mostly in an upstate New York farmhouse, recently bought by Richard (Richard Topol) and Jools (Sue Jean Kim), with a surprise blizzard howling out of a cold, clear sky to take down their power and trap them–a la classic horror movie–in the house with five friends and no food. It’s winter, clearly, and yet just as clearly, it ought to be summer: the controversial Shakespeare in the Park production mocking Trump is underway; James Comey has just testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in what should be the first chink in Trump’s armor; it’s six months into Trump’s presidency, per Allie, as she mocks the others for being already politically exhausted. And that’s Anne Washburn for you: a surface level of realism, with the roomful of recognizable white liberals and their beeswax candles and their not-quite-restored farmhouse, that’s just a skin over something much scarier and stranger, a peek inside the dark heart of liberal, and American, ideals.
In the “water cooler” postscript available as the final episode of the podcast, one of the interviewees mentions Aristotle’s notion that character is action, and the guests in this play seem trapped in a vortex of inaction. Friends, miserable in so many ways right this moment–cold, hungry, sniping at each other–find all the fractures in their presumed and unquestioned alignments: Richard and Jools bought this house from a family who’d owned it for hundreds of years without questioning why they gave it up. Luis goes to New Jersey bars and tries to force Trump supporters to recognize their own hypocrisy for fun–usually failing–and then is forced to convince that he himself voted for Trump; it’s perhaps not a coincidence that he and his partner, Andrew (Jeremy Shamos) are going through a rough patch, even if Andrew didn’t entirely know why. Mare (Mia Barron) and Jim (Rob Campbell) are having financial difficulties that they’d rather not have confessed at all. And then there’s Allie–the blabbermouth, the blamer, the one who tries to act like everyone’s thinking what she’s thinking, the one spilling out the largest amount of performative outrage but whose political activism in the end comes down to the question, “Why wasn’t someone better than me?” (Bloom plays her like a wind-up toy, every new idea tightening the ratchet mechanism until she hits maximum stress, when the spring starts to unwind manically.)
The play’s very talkiness and lack of overt action make it well suited to the audio adaptation; very few interjections of stage directions or overvoice of any kind are needed. The eerie original music (by the Bengsons) and Hefferan’s sound design do a good job of simple scene-setting. But in a group where everyone’s the same age with a lot of shared history, it can be hard to distinguish voices, which means some of the subtler character notes can get flattened.
It’s hard, of course, to write an audio-only play that grapples with the unsaid, with the inability of white Americans to talk honestly and non-self-aggrandizingly about privilege and complacency and, particularly, race in America. Allie’s “imaginary” Black people are mirrored by a Black character who is not in the play but central to it. Interspersed with the disastrous food-free dinner party are monologues from Lawrence (Bruce McKenzie), a white farmer who adopted a son from Kenya and raised him in an overwhelmingly white farming community. Lawrence loves his son dearly; Lawrence also doesn’t think “having to battle your way through a world a little more than the next guy is so bad in the long run.” Lawrence, as we come to realize, could be the prototypical Trump voter, not stupid, not blind, concerned for his country, and perhaps there’s a price he’ll pay for that, and perhaps he’s choosing to pay it with open eyes.
Traister writes, “Abusive power structures are built to impede reform and reimagination, in part by ensuring that those who might want to bring them down are also implicated within them.” And herein lies a problem with Shipwreck–we in the audience may laugh at them, or may feel the discomfort of our own certainties being indicted alongside them, but it feels like what’s being indicted is our complacency more than our complicity. Washburn and her characters question the American character, consider the possible moral rightness of the right-wing cause, discuss the perhaps necessary obliteration of the American project; they take a deeply problematic stab at the problem of race in America; they even try to make an analogy with Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple…but they don’t–they can’t–look clearly at the ways the system is, has always been, rigged for them.
Shipwreck reminds me a bit of Washburn’s 2016 play Antlia Pneumatica, in which a group met after the death of a friend; here, the group is meeting over the possible impending demise of liberal democracy, and the playwright is perhaps less kind to them, but that skin over a pool of strangeness feels similar. The echoes of her earlier play Mr. Burns, too, are inescapable when we think about how the American narrative shifts depending on the teller, how we cling to the certainty of narrative even as we see how we’ve all misperceived the story before us. Luis, the rich lawyer who is perhaps the least blinkered by the moment before him, says, “Art isn’t a call to arms, it’s an elegy.” If Mr. Burns was an elegy of sorts for the idea of a shared or global popular culture, what are we memorializing with Shipwreck? Is it an elegy for a certain kind of naïveté? The play was originally produced last year in London–but November 2020 feels another century removed from 2019. Now, with nearly 250 thousand people dead and a Supreme Court justice confirmed in a headlong race the week before a presidential election, it may be too late to interrogate, and too soon to mourn.