Alexandra Petri’s ‘Inherit the Windbag’

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There’s been so much political, cultural and natural drama (see COVID-19) lately that some folks might be thinking it looks like 1968 all over again.

That, for sure, was a pretty dramatic year, and Washington theater audiences will be getting a reminder and a sharp taste of 1968 when the aptly titled “Inherit the Windbag,” a smartly cutting satire by playwright and Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri, opens on March 11. Mosaic Theater Company’s world-premiere production will run through March 29 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.

The play operates something like a really bumpy time machine, with a one-way, no-exit ticket to one of the big moments of 1968 — a year of many big moments — when two pungent world-class pundits took off on a series of debates that in many ways defined the take-no-prisoners political climate of the times. It was a foreshadowing of the similar poison-gas atmosphere that exists today.

In 1968, liberal essayist, historical novelist and breaker of social mores Gore Vidal and conservative editor, political commentator and spy novelist William F. Buckley hovered over the presidential race like ideological and very individualistic scolds, conducting their own personal war against the background of a real war in Vietnam and various political and cultural wars in the streets of American cities and towns.

“It’s very much a reminder that those divisions that we have now existed back then, and then some,” said Ari Roth, Mosaic’s founding artistic director.

The debates — every bit as cutting, destructive and personal as those we see on social media and at political rallies today, but without the literary and intellectual sheen of the two protagonists — figured strongly in the general national debates. It’s not like it was a quiet year, what with the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The name-calling got pretty low for the high-minded Vidal and the aristocratic Buckley as they dueled in the foreground while Richard Nixon (whom we did have to kick around again) and Hubert Humphrey, the Minnesota happy warrior who almost pulled out a miracle, dueled in the background.

According to Petri, “the fascinating thing is how many of the debates they were having then are the same as the ones we’re having now, just in a different verbal guise. Questions of racial justice, so-called law and order, American imperialism, wealth disparity — these are still with us.”

In the play, Vidal and Buckley meet again in the so-called Dismal Beyond, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, and “reprise their infamous carnage,” aided and abetted by the likes of Ayn Rand on the one hand and James Baldwin on the other.

Top Washington actors John Lescault (Buckley) and Paul Morella (Vidal) take on the pivotal roles, with Stephen Kime and Tamieka Chavis playing various others. Lee Mikeska Gardner directs.

For Roth, the times and the year seem almost equally iconic, if not turbulent. “This is our fifth anniversary season, for one thing,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, a long time, and we and I have learned a lot. We’ve met and learned from new people, new partners. This year, it feels as if, with ‘Windbag,’ and our upcoming productions of ‘The Till Trilogy,’ beginning in April, we’re touching on critical moments in our national history and in our history.”

“The Till Trilogy,” by playwright Ifa Bayeza and directed by Talvin Wilks, consists of “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” “That Summer in Sumner” and “Benevolence.” It centers on an event that reverberates to this day: the infamous murder of a young black Chicago boy visiting relatives in Mississippi in the 1950s, at a time when King and others were launching the civil rights movement in the South.

“Inherit the Windbag” was commissioned through the Trish Vradenburg Play Commission as part of the Locally Grown Mosaic program. Vradenburg, a writer, columnist, novelist and playwright herself, was a member of the Theater J council and an early supporter of Mosaic.

When we look at newspapers today (there are lots fewer) or hear all the cable noise or listen to the shrinking number but ever louder Democrats who want to be president, just outside our feverish doors, we can remind ourselves — via “Inherit the Windbag,” for instance — that we’ve been here before.

Nineteen Sixty-Eight to Twenty Twenty: it’s not that long a way.

INHERIT THE WINDBAG
MARCH 11 TO 29
MOSAIC THEATER COMPANY
ATLAS PERFORMING ARTS CENTER
1333 H ST. NE
ATLASARTS.ORG
202-399-7993, EXT. 2

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