By Matthew Nerber, a performer and theater artist in Chicago, and a former literary contributor with the Generation, the University at Buffalo’s longest running alternative newspaper. When not seeing or making theater, Matthew can be found at the Music Box or expanding his classic rock vinyl collection.
1980 (Or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson) concerns the politics, office and otherwise, of the foot soldiers in a downtown Boston campaign HQ for the titular candidate’s presidential bid. The world premiere by Patricia Cotter and directed by Kaiser Ahmed, is being staged by Jackalope Theatre Company. There’s bartender Brenda (Evelyn Gaynor), a single mom who took the job for extra cash and wound up a true believer; Chicago hotshot Will (Sheldon Brown) who’s been tasked with the herculean feat of turning the office around; Robin (Bryce Gangel) a young Ivy Leaguer with agency and daddy’s checkbook; and Kathleen (Hillary Horvath), an even younger intern from Quincy, who has Mary Tyler Moore pluck but can’t muster up the courage to make cold calls, or go door to door, or hand out fliers. These are the underdog’s underdogs; the play asks us to lean into that dramatic irony inherent in a story set before a well-documented historical event. We know where this is going to end, which makes our beleaguered heroes’ enthusiasm all the more endearing.
But if dichotomy is central to the play’s narrative—a city that is home to the upper echelon of higher education yet the epitome of working class, an ambitious go-getter slaving the same thankless job as a meek do-gooder, a celebrity candidate with charisma vs an independent with a name that fits his blandness—that too goes for the structure as a whole. I was often unsure about what kind of play I was watching, or what was really at stake. As a social commentary it seems too obvious, the “history repeats itself” mentality doesn’t give us much besides novelty, and the identity politics that were maybe interesting in 1980 here seem stale. Though maybe that’s the point: the national horror show never rests, and the answer to “how did we get here?” is usually pretty clear to anyone paying attention. But it is when the play is subtly apolitical that it feels the most sincere, and in these moments Ahmed’s four-person cast really find their groove. And I was delighted by Jackalope’s ever-brilliant use of its singularly cool space: the brick walls and exposed piping this time serving as a dingy Boston street-corner.
In the play’s final moments, a lone character is left knowing that her future is not what she thought it would be. I felt left with the story of a woman, and the fight over her soul; a reminder that when we do battle on the world stage, we are ultimately fighting for what we leave behind to our children. Bob Dylan once said “even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked”—and that’s why, I guess, they voted for John Anderson.
1980 (Or Why I Voted for John Anderson) continues at Jackalope’s Broadway Armory Park theater, 5917 N. Broadway, through December 2. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm. Buy tickets online for $30 with $20 tickets available for students and seniors.