At the start of “The Totalitarians,” a young man appears before us in a knitted mask that obscures his mouth and renders his opening speech pretty much unintelligible. “Ffmmmmm bff llvvmmm,” he mumbles as the giant screen that surrounds him buzzes with blurry images, like a TV on the fritz.
What are we to make of such a peculiar, off-putting beginning? I wish I could tell you that it’s a sly conceit, woven cunningly into a play that’s all about a noisy political culture rife with mixed signals. But no. The moment instead proves to be the all-too-fitting preamble for a windy muddle of a black comedy, one in which the playwright never satisfactorily clues us into what he’s trying to say.
As its fans know, Woolly Mammoth Theatre has an affinity for explosive drama. And sometimes, it simply steps on a mine. “The Totalitarians,” written by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb and directed by Robert O’Hara, is one of those unpleasant misfires that occur in the life of a theater company accustomed to taking chances. And that’s okay. Everyone will just have to shake it off and move on.
The play does feature a brassy turn by Emily Townley as a political candidate in the Sarah Palin mold, an earthy type who seeks to sell herself as a nervy truth-teller but who actually has no patience for facts or other similarly pesky stuff. Outfitted in cowboy boots and jewel-encrusted jackets, Townley’s often vulgar Penny Easter strings together buzzwords that make no cumulative sense. “Life is under attack,” she declares at a campaign rally. “Murderers, viruses and avoidable accidents!”
The convoluted plot of “The Totalitarians” has us in Nebraska, where Penny’s campaign for statewide office — we’re not told she is running for lieutenant governor until the last scene — is managed by Francine, an ambitious if ideologically neutral apparatchik played by Dawn Ursula. Francine is married to Jeffrey (Sean Meehan), a doctor who is afraid to tell his patients how sick they are.
Among those he’s not leveling with is the terminally ill Ben (Nicholas Loumos), a young conspiracy theorist who convinces the highly suggestible Jeffrey that Penny is at the center of a plot to turn Nebraska over to a totalitarian regime. Francine will hear none of it, because she’s come up with a meaningless slogan — “Freedom from fear” — that both the candidate and public adore. So sure, why not: Earnest Jeffrey joins nutty Ben’s undersubscribed underground organization, whose activities revolve around meetings in parks and Ben running his hand along Jeffrey’s upper thigh.
Not much care is exhibited here in tying the strands of the story together, as evidenced by the predictable resolution of assorted events in guns and blood. Penny’s lapses into doublespeak and other references to “1984” seem intended to imbue “The Totalitarians” with a cautionary chill — or perhaps they’re just meant to show that the dramatist read the novel.
Townley comes off best here, because her character is at least consistently buffoonish. O’Hara doesn’t have much success in helping sort out the motivations of the others, particularly Meehan’s baffling Jeffrey, who, I suppose aptly enough, joins Ben in making the dissident group’s garbled transmissions.
“Ffmmmmm bff llvvmmm,” indeed.
by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. Directed by Robert O’Hara. Sets, Misha Kachman; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Colin K. Bills; music and sound, Lindsay Jones; videos, Jared Mezzocchi; fight choreography, Joe Isenberg. About 2 hours and 20 minutes. Tickets, $50-$77.50. Through June 29 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit www.woollymammoth.net or call