by Tulis McCall
In First Daughter Suite now at the Public Theatre, if you walk away with nothing else, you will walk away astonished at the talent on the stage and in the orchestra. Per square inch this production shoots the moon with talent and skill. The opening scene nothing short of magnificent. The voices blend into a frothy tapestry of feminine passion, intelligence, independence and desire.
Do you know what I wish for
… in a house that will never be a home?
… I want the waters of my birth
It is an auspicious beginning. Would that the entire piece lived up to it.
Although performance is presented as being a daughters’ tale, it is a First Women’s Tale. First Ladies and First Daughters and First Mothers (or mothers-in-law to be more precise.) These are the people who did not run for a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g, but ended up in the White House anyway.
Consider them collateral damage.
Pat Nixon (a stunning and precise Barbara Walsh) is sitting in the eye of the storm of her daughter Tricia’s (Betsy Morgan) wedding on June 12, 1971. This was the day before the New York Times began publishing articles based on the Pentagon Papers. Not only was there a storm brewing that had her father’s immediate attention, there was a literal storm brewing that had Tricia’s attention and Julie’s (Caissie Levy ) irritation. The fates were conspiring against the Nixon’s, and this mother and her two daughters were caught in the middle. They had no choice in the matter. What they did have a choice in was how they behaved, and these three were like wild mares bucking against a new corral. The daughers lash out at each other. Pat Nixon is tormented by the ghost of Dick Nixon’s mother Hannah Nixon (Theresa McCarthy – whose luminous voice belies her drab appearance). The Nixon ship is about to burst a leak.
Next up is an odd bit of business. Amy Carter (Carly Tamer) – the perkiest daughter ever- is having a dream.The other people in it, Rosalynn (Rachel Bay Jones), Betty Ford (Alison Fraser) and her daughter Susan ((Ms. Levy) – think of the dream as more of a nightmare. So did I. Somehow the precocious Amy is convinced that taking the Presidential Yacht to Iran and rescuing the hostages will be a swell idea. And if she fails – her dad’s career is kaput. Which is something Roslyn makes clear she would not mind. A bizarre scene.
Act Two begins with the most successful of the pieces – a treacherous scene between Nancy Reagan (a terrifying Ms. Fraser) and her author daughter Patti Davis (Ms. Morgan). While Patti slashes away at her mother, swinging from pillar to post on the emotional spectrum, Nancy sits like a coiled snake in the sun. They are visiting the home of Betsy Bloomingdale in Bel Air, and Nancy is maneuvering the Presidential craft through the early Iran Contra jungle. All you have do is say HE KNEW NOTHING, she tells her daughter. Nancy simmers in her lounge chair and you can almost hear the venom curdling. She is aided by her head housekeeper Anita Castelo (Isabel Santiago), a refugee from Panama involved in all that was illegal apparently. The two of them a breathtaking team. Literally.
Finally there is an rarely mentioned story in the form Barbara Bush (Mary Testa) who is having a conversation with her daughter Robin (Ms. McCarthy) on the anniversary of Robin’s death. Robin was 4 years old, George’s older sister, when she died. He was forbidden to cry. All of them were. Death was something to be immediately forgotten – even though it never is. Barbara and Laura (Ms. Jones) are playing cat and mouse of a sort. Laura comes out again and again to ask Barbara to come in and pack for an appearance on the second presidential campaign trail. Barbara keeps refusing. She will not be bullied or bossed. Finally it is Laura who snatches the reigns of this conversation and reminds Barbara what she withheld from her very unremarkable and disappointing son.
This show is so well intentioned it makes your head spin. Mr. LaChiusa has done his homework and is always on the side of the characters he has created out of the very public personaes to which we have become accustomed. Here we understand on a visceral level what it is like to go from normal to exposed in a nanno second. It was one thing to campaign and quite another to reside in the White House. It is a situation that no one would or should wish for in LaChiusa’s mind. These women are not the captains of this ship. They are not even traveling First Class. These women are in steerage. Even the steely Nancy Reagan can only do so much to claw her way into the captain’s bridge. And while these revelations are to be admired, the structure of this piece does not hold together. These are women involved in one enormous car pile-up, and the only thing they can do is perform triage on themselves. Who is before or after them in the pileup is of no concern. Once on the throne the Queen is dead. Long Live the Queen. So it is understandable that there would be no connection in life. But this is theatre, and a story wants a thru-line, points of discovery and deliberation and decision. The four scenes contain some of these elements – not always – but the overall piece overall does not guide us along a path of firm footing. Instead we are left with scenes from the residencies that come across more like a house of horrors. That House being White.
Written by Michael John LaChiusa; Directed by Kirsten Sanderson
Cast Alison Fraser as Nancy Reagan/Betty Ford, Rachel Bay Jones as Laura Bush/Rosalynn Carter, Caissie Levy as Patti Davis/Julie Nixon, Theresa McCarthy as Robin Bush/Hannah Nixon; Betsy Morgan as Trisha Nixon/Susan Ford, Isabel Santiago as Anita Castelo, Carly Tamer as Amy Carter, Mary Testa as Barbara Bush and Barbara Walsh as Pat Nixon
“First Daughter Suite” runs through Nov. 15 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, Manhattan; 212-967-7555, publictheater.org.