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Chatting With the Tea Party

Jeffrey C. Wolf                                       photos by Matthew Dunivan




By Marc Miller


Back in ancient history, when there were just three networks, everybody got their news from middle-of-the-road Huntley-Brinkley or Walter Cronkite or Harry Reasoner, and extremism was less extreme. Now political zealots dwell within their bubbles of Fox News or MSNBC, and the echo chamber reverberates, and realities become more skewed and less subject to the opposing viewpoint. That may or may not be the message, but it’s surely the takeaway, of Chatting With the Tea Party, Rich Orloff’s autobiographical docu-drama. While the theatrical devices it employs are minimal, to put it mildly, it does get a dialogue going between factions who never talk to, and only slam, each other. And that’s valuable.


Orloff’s an Upper West Side liberal with Upper West Side liberal friends, and he spent a year—October 2011 to October 2012—traveling the country and attending Tea Party meetings, just to figure out what the other side was saying and where its animosity toward values he prized was coming from. Hence Chatting With the Tea Party, a verbatim condensation of what these way-out-of-New-York self-described patriots had to say. Jeffrey C. Wolf plays (overplays, to these eyes) Orloff, and John E. Brady, Maribeth Graham, and Richard Kent Green are the dozens of Tea Partiers holding forth on guns, taxes, Obama, and, especially, what they regard as government overreaching. It’s a simple format: Orloff narrates, often wittily—“like most writers,” he says of his project, “my first step is procrastination”—and leads us through Nebraska, Idaho, the Deep South, and places you may not expect the Tea Party to thrive. One of the most virulent of the bunch, and the only outwardly racist Partier Orloff met, leads the Bronx faction.


 (L to R) John E. Brady, Maribeth Graham, Jeffrey C. Wolf, and Richard Kent Green 


He’s trying, somewhat surprisingly, to humanize them. And he succeeds. Meanwhile, the scripted reactions of his UWS buddies come across as smug, self-serving, and narrow-minded. It’s hard to believe, and let’s choose not to, that none of them even tried to listen to the genuine frustrations and occasional nuggets of reason voiced by the opposition, as filtered through Orloff; chalk it up to dramatic license. But the Tea Partiers emerge as varied, occasionally intelligent, and sometimes appealing. We kind of fall in love with Darr Moon, the leader of the Custer County, Idaho Tea Party; he’s a genuine and nonjudgmental patriot, he persuades us the feds have unintentionally made the environment around him worse, and he convincingly sees homesteading as a possible partial solution to the welfare state. And he’s a nice man. Annette Burger, of McMinn County, Tennessee, opposes government handouts of any kind and won’t listen to reason on taxes, but she’s a poised, thoughtful lady who’s working for the Party out of a genuine altruism, and admits that maybe the Tennessee Valley Authority was a good thing.


Of course, the liberals among us will be relieved to know, there’s plenty of Tea Party idiocy out there, too. Repeatedly, Orloff/Wolf will confront a Partier with irrefutable evidence that they’re wrong about something—Obama’s birthplace, teachers’ falling salaries, tax rates under Reagan/Bush vs. Clinton/Obama—and they just won’t accept it, their stubbornness and intransigence proving stronger than their rational skills. Their ignorance, and need to hold on to it, is maddening. Race, amazingly, doesn’t appear to motivate them much, but guns sure do, and the Second Amendment arguments between Orloff and the other side represent a gap that sadly will never be bridged.


Diverse as the Tea Party voices are, Lynnette Barkley’s direction hasn’t differentiated them much. You glance at a stage direction in the script—“with vulnerability and enormous concern,” goes the one for a Tea Party lady who wonders if Orloff will tell the truth about them—and realize that Graham didn’t bring that vulnerability and enormous concern out. The Southern and Midwestern accents feel broad and pasted-on, and the characterizations do approach caricature at times; only when a Partier gets an extended monologue, or dialogue with Orloff, does a complete human being emerge. Barkley’s blocking, on Nick Francone’s barely-a-set of tables and chairs, is mostly face-front-and-declaim. Paul Girolamo has provided some helpful projections, and Daniela Hart’s sound design, in the small black box that is the Robert Moss Theater, is at least unobtrusive.


If you expect to have your preconceived New York liberal notions of who comprises the Tea Party validated, you may be in for a surprise—the interviewees here are frequently unreasonable, or uninformed, or unrelenting, but they’re not all Fox News airheads. And Chatting with the Tea Party might have come up with a format more theatrical or imaginative than Orloff’s straightforward reportage, but it does leave you with plenty to think about, and it refuses to reduce its often provocative political discourse into shrink-wrapped sound bites. That’s more than you’ll likely get from the cable or network reporting on Iowa or New Hampshire.


Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.


Chatting With the Tea Party plays through Feb. 21 at the Robert Moss Theater, 440 Lafayette St., 3rd Floor, New York. Tickets can be purchased at