In '1980,' a campaign office full of discontent erupts

Friday, 27 October 2017, 01:00:51 PM. Director Kaiser Ahmed has cast '1980' ideally, although too often he seems to have pushed his actors into overdrive.

If, by chance, you still happen to be wondering about the dynamics of the presidential election of 1980, it is worth recalling that the race was among three men: Jimmy Carter, the Democratic incumbent, who was embroiled in the Iran hostage crisis; Ronald Reagan, the veteran Hollywood actor turned California governor who was heading up the Republican ticket, and a relative unknown, John B. Anderson, a Republican Congressman from Illinois who was running as an independent, and espoused views with a certain liberal appeal. To set the scene further: The disco era was waning but not yet obsolete, and this was long before the Internet, cell phones and social media.

‘1980 (Or Why I’’m Voting For John Anderson)’
When: Dec. 2
Where: Jackalope Theatre at Broadway Armory Park, 5917 N. Broadway
Tickets: $12.50 – $30
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission

Despite its title, Patricia Cotter’s play, “1980 (Or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson),” now in an exuberantly acted world premiere by the Jackalope Theatre Company, has relatively little to say about the actual campaign that resulted in the election of Reagan. And while it clearly is meant to hint at certain similarities with the 2016 election phenomenon (in terms of race, class entitlement, sexism, education, celebrity, and all the rest), it plays primarily as a sitcom-style comedy of manners and office politics.

The story unfolds in the shabby little Boston area storefront (Sotirios Lividitis’ set is photo-realist perfection) that serves as headquarters for a rather dysfunctional group of Anderson volunteers. All of them know full well that the unknown and rather uncharismatic Anderson doesn’t have a prayer, even if he seems to be a decent human being. And as it turns out, the motives of the four volunteers are far more personal than political.

As “1980” opens, the office manager, Brenda (Evelyn Gaynor), is in full manic mode (enhanced by swigs of alcohol) as she gives instructions to a newly arrived college intern, Kathleen (Hillary Horvath). Brenda, 37, is bursting with energy, uses the office to escape an abusive husband from whom she is separated, and is happy with the little $75 weekly stipend she gets for opening the office each morning. She has little patience with Kathleen, a pretty, bright-eyed, naive 17-year-old from a working-class family who is terrified of making cold calls to potential Anderson voters, and seems quite the wrong fit for her assignment.

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Hillary Horvath plays Kathless and Bruce Gangel is Robin in Patricia Cotter’s “1980 (Or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson.” | Joel Maisonet

The 23 year-old go-getter in the office is Robin (Bryce Gangel), the leggy, back-biting, neurotic and ambitious daughter in a wealthy, politically connected Boston family who has attended Harvard, suffered a nervous breakdown, and now lives the high life with a bar-hopping boyfriend. She questions Kathleen about her sex life, suggests she might be a lesbian, and inculcates the girl with a sense that she will forever be a loser if she does not become a “taker” and grab hold of whatever she can in order to rise above her current status.

Enter Will (Sheldon Brown), a well-educated, professional, super-confident African American — well aware of the racial tensions that have plagued Boston’s school busing program — has been sent from Chicago to oversee the campaign office. Neither Robin nor Brenda are particularly pleased to see a man enter the hen house, although Robin, who needs a laudatory recommendation for her internship, makes a quick connection that goes awry, and the rough-and-tumble Brenda becomes a welcome distraction for Will as he tries to avoid an impending marriage. As for Robin, who is the most resentful about his arrival, she pulls what appears to be a power move and it turns out to be a betrayal.

If you are looking for an idealist here you might be hard-pressed to find one. Each of these people is in the campaign game for reasons of advancement or escape. And of course the matter of who will win any election goes far deeper than campaign organization, and into the psyche of the voting public. Robin is the perfect example of that.

Director Kaiser Ahmed has cast “1980” ideally, although too often he seems to have pushed his actors into overdrive. A little more subtlety might have worked better. Nevertheless, Gaynor puts a fine comic spin on her character’s impulsive behavior. Horvath is impossible to take your eyes off as she morphs from caterpillar to butterfly. Gangel (memorable from Rivendell’s “Dry Land” last season), is knife-sharp, and makes lying an art. And Brown is ideally droll as a man who just might have gotten a whole lot more than he bargained for when he entered that Boston storefront.

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