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53% Of

Theatre Reviews by James Wilson - June 28, 2022

Grace Rex, Cathryn Wake, Marianna McClellan,
and Anna Crivelli

Photo by Joan Marcus
Although his name is never mentioned, The Former Guy's presence looms large in Steph Del Rosso's 53% Of, currently running as part of Second Stage's Uptown Season at the McGinn/ Cazale Theater. The title refers to the percentage of white women that voted Republican in the 2016 presidential election, and the play presents a snapshot of the red and blue, gender and racial divide that seems only to have gotten wider in the last six years.

Honestly, after the anguish of last week's Supreme Court rulings, I, as an inveterate Democrat, did not think I would have the emotional fortitude to endure a show that celebrates (or at least renders a potent reminder of) the legacy of the 45th president. To its credit, though, the comedy-drama does not gloat, nor does it wallow in self-pity about the state of the nation and who is responsible for the roiling tensions. Instead, it pokes and prods at our preconceived notions of self-identified conservative and liberal, female and male, voters.

53% Of consists of four separate scenes that take place between December 2016 and March 2017. The first centers on a meeting of four white Republican women in a well-appointed suburban home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. (Emmie Finckel's astute scenic design and Mextly Couzin's atmospheric lighting are spot-on throughout.) They are planning for the recently elected president's upcoming visit, and the main order of business is to determine who will provide the presidential introduction. Denise (Anna Crivelli), a former prom queen (as she likes to periodically drop into the conversation), believes she should make the address. Mousey Sue (Grace Rex) caves quickly when she is told that her religious fervor might scare the guest of honor, and flighty Vicky (Cathryn Wake)–as the other women impress upon her–suffers from terrible stage fright, so she could not possibly take on the role. Leslie (Marianna McClellan), who is dealing with some domestic turmoil, is the only other reasonable contender, and neither she nor Denise will graciously concede the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

This contest of wills is tabled with the arrival of PJ (Eden Malyn), who has joined the group on the invitation of Leslie. Wearing a sweatshirt with an emblazoned Confederate flag on it, PJ tries to assure the organizers that the image does not mean what they think it means. The red, for instance, represents Christ's blood, "the white border is God keeping us safe," "the blue X is Saint Anthony," and all of those stars, naturally, signify God's hands. The meeting deteriorates as the conversation turns to uncomfortable accusations of racism.

In the next scene, we meet the women's husbands (played by the performers who portrayed the wives previously). The men have gathered for a men-only inauguration party, and they drink beer, grandstand, and cheer the swearing-in as if it were a 50-yard touchdown. They try to out-bro each other by removing bottle caps with their teeth, but things turn tense when one of the men admits to a sexual exploit that crosses the line even among these hyper-heterosexuals.

The final two scenes focus on a collective of liberal women (with the actors effortlessly morphing into the new characters through the help of Lux Haac's witty costumes) in Brooklyn. The friends meet to organize actions, console one another about the spate of the president's executive actions, and regularly give an award to a notable group member who is the "Bad Ass Woman of the week." The women claim to be exceedingly aware of their white privilege, but they are clueless in the ways in which they wield it. This is particularly evident in their unintentional alienation of KJ (Ayana Workman), the only Black member of their group. The women talk a good game about the evils of gentrification and the miracle of intersectionality, but they nonchalantly make blanket assumptions about political affiliations and race.

Under Tiffany Nichole Greene's resourceful direction, the ninety-minute play moves swiftly, and it hits its satirical marks efficiently. All of the actors are terrific, and they transform effectively without too much caricature into the different characters. (Each performer takes on two or more parts, except Workman, who is outstanding in her comparatively small role.)

By the end of the evening, the playwright and the performers urge the audience members to check their own preconceptions separating "us" from "them" in terms of politics, race, and gender. However, because of the relative brevity of the scenes, there is not a chance to get fully developed characters, so there is a sketch-like quality to the evening. Even as the play unpacks familiar stereotypes, it sometimes falls back on them to earn easy laughs about conservative and liberal quirks and lifestyles. Indeed, this is a rare work that would benefit from being longer.

53% Of does not satisfactorily explain, nor could it, why a huge number of white women supported a candidate whose values seemed to be in opposition to their own. Nevertheless, for anyone outside of that percentile, the play offers a useful rejoinder that reduces these voters to a number: They are complex individuals who hold contradictory views. They are intractable and will not give one inch. They can be laughably hypocritical at times.

Just like us.

53% Of
Through July 10, 2022
Second Stage Theater
McGinn/ Cazale Theater, 2162 Broadway at 76th St., New York, NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: