A huge, teetering Betsy Ross flag looms over the set of Dominic Orlando’s “The Reagan Years.” Cobbled together from pallets and jagged scraps of wood, this flimsy patchwork structure provides an apt metaphor for the moral abyss that looms beneath the feet of the characters in this visceral drama produced by Workhaus Collective at the Playwrights’ Center.
Set in 1988, “The Reagan Years” opens on the dregs of a party. Three roommates dodge discarded liquor bottles and crushed beer cans as they contemplate their impending graduation. Walkman (Gabriel Murphy) is dressed in business attire, preparing to leave for the internship he hopes will morph into a post-college career. Paul LaNave’s Frisbee is his polar opposite, staggering around the stage in an advanced state of inebriation while trying desperately to keep the previous evening’s party alive. Moth (Michael Hanna), the artist responsible for creating the flag sculpture, flutters between the two like an eager-to-please puppy.
The arrival of Guy, played with sinister charisma by Bryan Porter, ups the ante of this desultory morning-after scene. He’s clearly the leader of this pack, whom he describes as “my boys,” as well as the owner of the house they inhabit. His father is the head of Combined Metallics, a huge conglomerate that has its fingers not only in dozens of industries, but also firmly in the lives of these four roommates. When a female hitchhiker (Jessie Scarborough-Ghent) enters the scene, a series of increasingly ominous plot threads coalesce into a denouement of bloody mayhem.
Orlando has created a skewed, almost claustrophobic world in “The Reagan Years” and a solid ensemble makes these damaged characters’ choices plausible. Porter’s Guy is a strutting dictator whose blatant manipulation of everyone around him morphs from simply obnoxious to malevolent. Murphy’s Walkman dithers between dreams of corporate domination and resentment of Guy’s privileged position, while Hanna creates a poignant portrait of power dynamics as the subservient Moth.
One problem with “The Reagan Years” is the role of the hard-partying Frisbee. He’s the clearly identified comic character in this dark drama, but LaNave’s over-the-top, highly physical portrayal virtually turns Frisbee into a lurching marionette. The extremity of the performance raises the question of whether the purpose of this role is simply to garner easy laughs amidst the surrounding darkness.
Despite that caveat, Orlando has created a powerful and arresting drama with “The Reagan Years.” Rather than a bald political statement, he’s crafted a subtly ironic portrait of the ethos of an era, carefully revealing the moral ambiguity that underlies that era’s go-go optimism. It makes for a gripping and unpredictable evening.
Lisa Brock is a Minneapolis writer.