"I am not his aide. I am him." That declaration is delivered by Patricia (Lauren Bloom Hanover) in CoHo's new production of Lauren Gunderson's The Taming—and it's only half true. Contrary to her claim, Patricia is an aide to a Republican senator. Yet while she is a conservative die-hard, her boss prefers pursuing interns to pushing through legislation. Patricia is more of a politician than her employer will ever be, and she finds it infuriating that for all her political zeal, she can't make him more than a horny hack.
A similar conundrum vexes The Taming, directed by Mariel Sierra and written in 2013. Despite a trio of terrifically intense performances, the production is hobbled by the weaknesses of Gunderson's script—simplistic characterizations and a frustratingly vague perspective on American politics. The Taming isn't a waste of time, but it isn't the balm for a bruised America that Gunderson clearly intended it to be.
Most of The Taming takes place in a hotel room where Patricia has been locked with Bianca (Katie Watkins), a liberal blogger gleefully plotting to expose the R-rated exploits of Patricia's boss. They have been taken prisoner by Katherine (McKenna Twedt), a Miss America contestant whose motives are surprisingly altruistic—she wants Patricia and Bianca to put aside their ideological beef and help her revamp the U.S. Constitution.
This ingenious setup offers Twedt the opportunity to give a performance that beautifully mixes glamor, eccentricity and outrage. While thoroughly believable as a pageant contestant—she tosses her hair with lofty grandeur—what matters most is the gravitas that she brings to Katherine's lectures on how to recapture the visionary spirit of the Founding Fathers.
If Katherine is The Taming's woman of tomorrow, Patricia and Bianca are its scapegoats. Gunderson lampoons the two of them savagely, which drags the play into the gutters of meanness and superficiality. Patricia is an obnoxious right-wing cliché—who owns a chocolate Lab named Reagan—and Bianca's environmentalism is revealed to be purely opportunistic. Rather than remind us Patricia and Bianca are fellow human beings and fellow Americans despite their differences, Gunderson turns them into cruel caricatures, a decision that undermines the story's call for compassion.
Equally maddening is the play's refusal to reveal how the incendiary debates surrounding some of the defining political issues of the decade would fit into Katherine's dream of a constitutional reboot. You get the impression the play has hollow ideas about "doing things differently" but relatively few thoughts on how to actually enrich and improve political discourse.
The Taming grows markedly more entertaining during a wacky flashback sequence set in 1787, which gives Twedt the chance to play both George and Martha Washington and utter the hilariously anachronistic line, "What up, Founders? Did someone say, 'Huzzah'?" The sequence also features the play's most poignant moment—James Madison (Hanover) mourning the shortcomings of the Constitution and praying that future generations will be "better than us."
That line elegantly makes the case that the best thing about our nation's groundbreaking and inherently flawed Constitution is that it was the beginning of a journey, not an end. It's also a reminder that a flawed work—artistic or otherwise—can still ignite crucial debates about what it takes to sustain a democracy. That's why The Taming, despite its shortcomings, is worth seeing. Even its failures may well be bricks on a path toward a more perfect union.
SEE IT: The Taming is at CoHo Theatre, 2257 NW Raleigh St., cohoproductions.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, Nov. 8-17. $25-$32.