Presented by Michael Sexton and Rinne Groff at The Kitchen, 512 W. 19 St., NYC, May 9-24.
In a curious news item from Jimmy Carter's trip to Cuba, a woman, leaning out her hotel window after spotting the former president, yelled, "We love you, Jimmy Carter!" That's the spirit of Rinne Groff's "Jimmy Carter was a Democrat," which moved from P.S. 122 to a limited run at the Kitchen, a last-minute replacement for the ailing John Kelly.
The play looks back fondly, almost quaintly, at the events leading up to Ronald Reagan's landslide 1980 election and his firing of PATCO workers—air traffic controllers—in 1981. This is partly imparted through the scattershot narrative of Samuel B. Shostakovitz (Steven Rattazzi), a delightfully eccentric far-left labor historian in an off-the-rack suit. It is he who introduces the storylines: Two controllers, slutty Emily (Carla Harting) and nutty Bill (Daniel Freedom Stewart), having an affair and getting demotions for unavoidable near-misses; Emily's fling with an FAA flack, Mike (Jeremy Shamos); and Bill's relationship with his news-obsessed wife, Louise (Molly Powell). Atop Laura Hyman's picture-perfect early-'80s set, Groff shows us the Carter era by showing us everyday folks.
Groff also has a long list of political points to make: that Reagan decimated the power of unions in America; that we never knew how good we had it when Carter inhabited the White House, the hostage debacle, double-digit inflation, and national malaise notwithstanding. At one point, Carter is called "the last real Democrat," an acknowledgement that in certain liberal-leaning quarters there's a yearning, or maybe nostalgia, for the time. You understand why that Cuban woman shouted.
Mop-headed Rattazzi is stunning as Shostakovitz, blending a professorial mien with a streak of sheer giddiness and an uncanny gift for turning benign lines sardonic. Harting is sweetly sassy as easy-to-bed Emily, a woman Shostakovitz loves even though the narrator never interacts with any of the characters. Stewart and Powell make a sad, disaffected couple; no one could be more FAA-style surly than Shamos.