South Florida hasn’t seen any live theatre, at least in its traditional form, in five months. Any company willing to jump through the regulatory hoops of reopening during a pandemic must be taking its audience’s temperature—so to speak!—regarding the kind of theatre it wants to see. Given that the dust has far from settled on this crisis, I would argue that this isn’t the time for Neil Simon, or Pinter, or Shakespeare. Neither light escapism, nor intellectual rigor, nor florid poetry, seem to capture the exposed viscera of a country on the precipice.
Enter “If I’m Good,” Ronnie Larsen’s scorched-earth two-character drama that opened last weekend at the Wilton Theatre Factory. A discomfiting dispatch from the dark heart of the American divide, Larsen’s world premiere feels like a time-capsule chronicle of the national dumpster fire that is 2020, a bitter cocktail of coronavirus and culture war that isn’t meant to go down smoothly. The play’s tagline, after all, is its own morbid spoiler alert: “A gay Democrat and a straight Republican go to war, leaving one in jail and the other in a coffin.”
This schism is made clear from the characters’ introductions. Nedra Gallegos and Larsen enter the stage from their respective wings. Gallegos is wearing a Trump 2020 face mask. Larsen sports a Biden 2020 face mask. Meeting center stage, they stare each other down for a beat and then, like boxers in a ring, retreat to their corners, removing their face coverings.
You know that any play that opens with the line, “Most of the time, I’m a reasonable person,” is going to end messily. It’s spoken by Gallegos, whose unnamed conservative stands at stage right, in between baking materials spread on a table and framed family photos, one of which depicts a young man in a confederate-flag T-shirt. Over on stage left stands the blue-stater Larsen, her opposite in every conceivable way. Movie posters of sentimental value hang on the wall, and there are copious wine bottles on the counter (While there’s no set, per se, in this workshop production, both home environments are well summarized through Bill Boyd’s evocative props).
For the next hour, we get to know them, mostly from their separate perches, through interrupted monologues and re-created scenes from their pasts. Gallegos’ character discusses her ex-husband and six children—she lost one to the opioid epidemic—along with a history of brainwashing by her racist father, whose programming can be seen in her own reactionary tendencies as an adult. Larsen’s Democratic avatar, however, speaks less about himself and more about his decades-long life partner turned husband, a saintly brain surgeon. Though we never meet this physician outside of a brief flashback, he represents the unlikely point of intersection between these two fractured souls, and is partially responsible for their reckoning.
Larsen penned his script, with its elliptical but devastating plot turns, during a burst of inspiration during the spring lockdown, and it has all of the naked rawness of an open wound. It’s a book borne of the zeitgeist, with its references to “Tiger King” and haircut protests, to ventilator shortages and combustible social-media missives.
As COVID-19 metastasizes, like viruses do, from the fringes to the central nervous system of the play, the characters’ red-versus-blue divide becomes almost ancillary, swept into the bigger picture of the human drama. Over these last few months, I’ve thought often of that mangled Stalin adage that “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” “If I’m Good” is about that single death and its aftermath. As an audience member, when your blood isn’t boiling, your heart is aching.
While Larsen’s own political sympathies undoubtedly sit somewhere on the left side of the spectrum, both roles are written in three dimensions. “If I’m Good” is not a liberal screed. In fact, it is Larsen’s character that most tests our sympathies, performing, under the direction of Michael Wright, with a volcanic capacity for rage, decrying his opponent’s bigotry while reveling in his own hypocritical vitriol.
Wright guides Gallego toward a more muted embodiment—a reflection, perhaps, of that inherent “reasonableness” that will be put to the test—and there are moments when she could have better projected her voice, at one point battling both the rattling air conditioner of the building and an intrusive piano score. (This sentimental music, suggesting a lack of confidence in the emotional pull of the material itself, is the weakest link in Larsen’s sound design; the strongest link is a clever Easter egg for fans of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”).
Last Saturday’s opening-night performance was seated at capacity, which in this surreal era meant about 20 filled seats, spaced out accordingly. Cautious audiences should know that attending the theater is a contactless experience; there are no programs handed out, temperatures are checked at the door, and hand sanitizer is easily accessible.
As for the actors, I couldn’t help wincing a bit during the final moments of “If I’m Good.” They don’t always have the luxury of remaining apart, and the play itself feels like a metaphor of our national struggle to socially distance. At first, Gallego and Larsen are quarantined in their respective sides—political, emotional and, not least, physical. They try to play by the rules, and they succeed for a while, until a powder keg erupts, and they’re in each other’s faces. Actors have always been told to take risks; this, perhaps, is what risk-taking looks like in 2020.
“If I’m Good” runs at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 29 at Wilton Theatre Factory, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors. Tickets cost $25; audiences can also purchase a private showing for small groups for $200. Visit ronnielarsen.com.