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Review: 53% Of Pokes Holes in the Identity Politics of White Women on Both Sides of the Aisle

Steph Del Rosso draws a few unflattering parallels between the white women who voted for Trump and the ones who marched against him.

Grace Rex (Sasha), Cathryn Wake (Vivian), Marianna McClellan (Lucy), and Anna Crivelli (Dana) as a quartet of liberal New Yorkers in Steph Del Rosso's 53% Of.
(© Joan Marcus)

"I am a Very. Good. Person." On a recent episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, the couture-clad Southern belle Sutton Stracke hurled those words at multi-millionaire and former Bosnian refugee Diana Jenkins, as if they were warning shots backed by heavy (and surely very expensive) artillery. How dare you reference the things I have done? reads the thought bubble above Stracke's head. That is not who I AM!

Perhaps you're allergic to drawing sociological insights from Andy Cohen's clubhouse (is a Bravo-watching, drama-loving voyeur just not who you ARE?). But you're not likely to find an interaction that better sums up the lengths to which Americans go to stake their claim in the right identity bucket with the right compatriots on the right side of history. Divorcing who we are from what we do (and who we do it to) ties us in quite a knot — and playwright Steph Del Rosso does her best to unravel it in her new play 53% Of, now running off-Broadway at Second Stage Uptown's McGinn/Cazale Theater.

Del Rosso in no way tries to reconcile the space between people's actions and identities. No metaphysician in the world could do enough logical somersaulting. Instead, she attempts to expose all parts of America's wretched political spectrum (particularly its Caucasian portions) for playing the same ludicrous game. And while her play's title directly references the infamous 53% of white women who voted for our he-who-shall-not-be-named 45th President in 2016 (his name is never actually spoken in the play), don't be fooled into thinking the remaining 47% are spared from culpability.

Anna Crivelli and Cathryn Wake as Denise and Vicky, conservative moms of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
(© Joan Marcus)

Representatives of the 53% are the women we meet in Del Rosso's opening scene. In a festooned living room in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, we find Denise, Leslie, Sue, and Vicky (Anna Crivelli, Marianna McClellan, Grace Rex, and Cathryn Wake, respectively) — a group of local moms who fight for the honor to introduce then-candidate Donald Trump at a school event (scenic designer Emmie Finckel uses Christmas decor, cutesy Home Goods signs, and an extra-large American Flag to turn the stage into a suburban Republican wonderland). PJ, a blue-collar outlier sourced from Facebook who joins the group (played by a cheerfully confrontational Eden Malyn), ends up throwing everyone into a tizzy — particularly our turtlenecked Denise (on-the-nose but cleverly malleable costumes by Lux Haac), who desperately grasps for the thing that makes her different from the crass and conspicuously racist woman who just crashed her party.

This identity crisis is followed by two more (members of the all-female cast double and triple up on their sometimes gender-bending roles): An inauguration party scene with these dissatisfied women's cheating husbands, pervaded by an undercurrent of "I may cross some lines, but I would never cross that line"; followed by a peek inside the lives of the ladies' woke, New York counterparts. Here we meet a group of millennials who spend their evenings sitting around a Brooklyn apartment meditating on their white guilt, debating the ethics of corporatized donuts, and brainstorming marches like they're prom themes. These women also spare some time to panic about how they may have alienated KJ (Ayana Workman), the only Black woman to once attend these inane meetings and then conspicuously stop showing up (Workman gives a lovely if all-too-brief performance in the play's final scene as the poster child for women of color whose voices are drowned out by all the white noise).

Eden Malyn, Marianna McClellan, and Anna Crivelli as Republican husbands RJ, Larry, and Derek.
(© Joan Marcus)

If you're hoping to gain some new insights into the collective psyche of the white women who voted red in 2016 (and 2020), be warned that 53% Of and its misleading title will leave that itch unscratched (even in light of recent Supreme Court events, most of the play's triggering comments are too broad to be truly cutting). Del Rosso's play is not in the business of reframing the past, or humanizing the frustrated Trump voters of America. On the contrary, Del Rosso and director Tiffany Nichole Greene confiscate layers of depth and nuance from both sides of the aisle in order to draw clear parallels between their respective strategies of living selfishly while proclaiming ultimate righteousness (despite the sense of caricature on both sides, Del Rosso has a firmer grasp on her New York characters, which comes through in the actors' performances).

It's certainly a fair observation, but one that is not made with enough refinement to distinguish comparison from moral equivalency — or to make a bold case for moral equivalency, if we're really looking to rile up our white, liberal theatergoers. Instead, we're left a bit stuck between heightened absurdism and diluted political commentary, and we're able to slip through the cracks with an easy out of: I'm nothing like any of those people.

Crivelli, as all three of her characters — conservative Denise, lascivious Derek, and platitude-spouting Dana — becomes the mouthpiece for the bipartisan cries of "I'm a good person." And while it's interesting to see how this self-preservation instinct manifests on both sides of our culture war, it registers more as the playwright's frustrated reflections than a pointed thesis. We might catch glimmers of Denise, Derek, and Dana's parallel realizations that their "good person" proclamations are built on houses of straw. But the real story, which we never get to see, is how they might sweep up the wreckage and start again. Unless that's as far-fetched as a Housewives dinner party without tears.

Anna Crivelli and Ayana Workman as Dana and KJ in a scene from 53% Of.
(© Joan Marcus)
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