When a Tepid Clap Becomes a Battle Cry Becomes a Play
From left: N (Holland Taylor) and A (Ana Villafañe) in “N/A” (Photo: Daniel Rader)

When a Tepid Clap Becomes a Battle Cry Becomes a Play

In "N/A," two people who have been reduced to depoliticized shero memes—Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—are ushered into another often toothless sphere: the unsubtle mainstream liberal fantasy realm of commercial theater.

At Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union, Nancy Pelosi all too famously hurled the center-lib equivalent of a Molotov Cocktail: she clapped. The pragmatist’s applause—a few seconds of slightly alien gesturing, arms rigidly outstretched, wrists limp—became her "pièce de résistance" (The Guardian), a gesture of "exquisite shade" (Washington Post). Soon, Pelosi’s store was selling "Patron Saint of Shade" merch. The clap's votaries attributed such power to it, it seemed they thought it might reduce the Trump White House to Cheeto dust then and there. 

Three years later, Pelosi sashayed onto the "Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars" runway, where she was praised by acerbic fashion queen Raja: "We throw the word masterclass around here all the time, but that sarcastic shady clap you [did] was epic." Pelosi slyly demurred. "It was completely unintentional." Applauding her after a quick get-out-the-vote message, the judges dotingly imitated Pelosi’s acidic ovation. She then re-imitated it back at them—forming a self-congratulatory feedback loop illustrative of the helpless state of a Democratic party imprisoned in a purely gestural world, where incrementalists imagine themselves as a resistance movement by virtue of one single conviction: their opposition to Trump.

"N/A," a production from a gaggle of Broadway producers, renting space in Lincoln Center Theater’s Off-Broadway Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, sets the perceived "fresh out of fucks" persona behind that lone clap against the zeal of Pelosi’s most vocal rival to the Left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

Despite them being unnamed but for "N" and "A," and despite former congressional aide and lobbyist playwright Mario Correa being careful in a recent interview to refer to them as "our character N" and "our A," the play collects their very real respective histories, ideologies, agendas, and sartorial choices into a starchy skirt vs. pant-suited pas de deux. Two over-exposed figures whose images get recycled ad nauseam into a world of depoliticized shero memes are, in "N/A," ushered into another often toothless sphere: the unsubtle mainstream liberal fantasy realm of commercial theater. Here in a vaguely liminal office in Lincoln Center Theater’s subterranean lair, these two glass ceiling–breakers mostly just have a lot they can learn from each other. 

On a spare stage backed by an LED screen delineating chapters in cable newsy font (scenic design by Myung Hee Cho; projection design by Lisa Renkel / POSSIBLE), newly minted New York Queens/Bronx representative A (Ana Villafañe) walks into N's office, having unseated the old-guard incumbent (Joseph Crowley in real-life) in her district. As she arrives, she’s live-streaming—classic A. 

AOC did of course use social media to document her congressional orientation and bring voters into the alienating experience of entering the hallowed marble halls of power as an insurgent force, but there’s something pointedly infantilizing about this choice as an introduction within the play, presented like it’s her first day at summer camp. As she stares up into her phone, the play reveals more surface signature characteristics. Her populist appeal via pop cultural references, for instance, emerges as she busts out momentarily into "Whoomp! There it Is."

N (Holland Taylor) enters the scene mid-livestream, cueing a meet-cute that screams the theme of generational divide. At this point it becomes clear the play, rather than emulating the scathing cynicism of "Veep" or system-trusting earnestness of "West Wing," has more in common with "Hacks." An impeccably comically-timed Taylor plays Pelosi by way of Deborah Vance, deeper-voiced, with sardonicism shielding vulnerability, and delivering sharper one-liner insults than political revelations to her callow adversary/mentee. A is given the far less fun task of throwing back earnest accusations of the hardened congresswoman’s complicity and anatomizing her privileges. The audience relished the imaginary veteran comedienne Pelosi. Even the more tepid burns spurred frenzied laughter—an echo of a tepid clap being perceived as a battle cry. 

"N/A" plops us into imagined meetings between N and A and relentlessly serves second helpings of histories still half-digested in us. A joins a sit-in outside N’s office, castigating the establishment’s glacial climate policy. (Director Diane Paulus breaks the fourth wall, sending A high-fiving audience members to evoke her populist appeal and unguardedness with constituents—though in the anonymous dark of the theater this break is more off-putting than rousing). N dismisses A’s Green New Deal, calling it, familiarly, the "Green Dream"; N tries to get A's vote for her position as Speaker of the House; A and other Squad members vote against the multibillion dollar supplemental border funding bill. January 6 unites them in that they "finally [have] something in common" in an enemy they agree wanted them both dead. Finally, in 2022, the Republican majority retakes the House, and Pelosi steps down as Democratic leader. 

Despite the odd nod toward universalization in keeping the characters unnamed, "N/A" goes out of its way to allude to both figures’ greatest hits (and deep cuts) for fan service. It almost feels like there’s a pause for applause at revelations about A's lipstick shade ("Beso") or N's love of ice cream. (Real-life Pelosi’s freezer-congesting stash led the 2020 Trump campaign to brand her "Nancy Antoinette" with the flaccid subtitle, "let them eat ice cream.")

If "N/A" does a disservice to one figure, it's A, whom it gives Hermione energy and makes an embodiment of rookie idealism, a mosaic of millennial tropes, and a soaking wet blanket (funny, given Pelosi’s dogged tendency to pour cold water on progressive ideals). AOC certainly has her cringe moments: she has in more recent years earned as many critics in the DSA as the DNC due to a slight Pelosi-ward drift. But in those early years, there was a self-awareness, a humor, a fire, and an ideological clarity that made her fearsome to centrists, that made hers a galvanizing moment that also opened the floodgates for DSA-backed candidates into NY and national politics. Correa, Paulus, and Villafañe’s characterization feels more an amalgam of every Instant Pot video and tweet, bespeaking the play’s portrayal of a Left it mostly reduces to a symptom of youthful bravado. 

The script is peppered with soundbytes of real-life Pelosi’s condescension to the Squad. Susan Page’s Pelosi biography "Madam Speaker" reports her having said, "Some of you are here to make a beautiful pâte…but we’re making sausage most of the time," and that sausage squeezes its way into dialogue. Pelosi is also quoted in the book accusing the new wave of progressive democrats of coming into office “to pose for holy pictures." Both these descriptions are delivered, in private, to A, underlining the play’s biggest problem: It’s never able to imagine, behind closed doors, much beyond a pastiche of these womens' public-facing personae and policy stances one could glean from a quick look at their respective websites. 

While Ocasio-Cortez’s fictionalized counterpart comes across as a walking phone-banking script, "N/A" affords Pelosi the imaginative leap of making her act like the headliner of an AOC comedy roast ("What is an 'activist bartender'? No—that’s a comma. An activist, comma, bartender.")

The roach-like endurance of "SNL" betrays a cultural fetish for bewigged and defanged reenactments of recent history, and "N/A" falls somewhere undecidedly between "SNL," debate play, and the unofficial next chapter of Ryan Murphy’s "Feud." If only it could mine how both figures have become overdetermined media/cultural symbols, and pinpoint (or simply imagine) something surprising beneath, rather than further confining them to these boxes in a battle between perceived purity and practicality, revolutionary furor and strategy.

But if it can’t deepen the images we consume daily—if it merely treats them as their own holy picture—what’s the point of seeing them reanimated in (stiff, theatrical) motion? The Playbill could pair well, at least, in a display next to one’s "Patron Saint of Shade" tee. 

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