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Nancy Pelosi reduced to a caricature in biographical ‘Adult in the Room’

Less a history lesson than a document of the male gaze, Bill McMahon’s play enacts a form of juvenile misogyny that is disappointing, particularly in a moment of genuine national distress.

Orlagh Cassidy stars as Nancy Pelosi in “The Adult in the Room.”
Orlagh Cassidy stars as Nancy Pelosi in “The Adult in the Room.”
Michael Brosilow

What does it take for a woman to succeed in politics?

A congressional pedigree? A deathbed wish? An immaculate, white pantsuit and the ability to serve her country with a smile?

The question itself is problematic, yet the question itself, a century after the 19th Amendment enfranchised women in every state and 104 years after the first woman was elected to Congress (Jeannette Rankin, R-Montana), remains irritatingly relevant.

Bill McMahon’s “The Adult in the Room,” premiering at Victory Gardens, places Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking female elected official in American history and second in line for the presidency, under the glare of theater lights in a one-woman show starring Orlagh Cassidy, directed by Heather Arnson and Conor Bagley.

Set in the confines of Pelosi’s office, furnished with a desk, a laptop, two chairs, four photographs, and the flaccid presence of an upright flag in a room without a draft or a visible window, the premise for this 75-minute monologue is Pelosi addressing some 4,200 members of Running Start, a nonprofit that trains young women to become politicians, over Instagram Live. A steady feed of (notably typo-free) messages and emojis projected on the margins of the stage represent the masses of Gen Z virtually assembled for this semi-private audience. Because we live in times of incessant surveillance, the idea that Pelosi is visible from all angles of the room is not unreasonable. Because we live in times of unremitting availability and rapid, unpredictable shifts in events on a gradient of tweet to emergency, frequent interruptions from her mobile device also seem authentically de rigueur.

There she is. The brown bob. The clipped consonants. The jabbing finger. The suit. But almost everything you need to know about this play is contained in the graphic used to advertise the show — a wasp-waisted cartoon figure dressed in skintight scarlet, one hand on her hip, other hand loosely gripping a gavel (or is it a croquet mallet?), looking about as threatening as Donna Reed with a face-splitting grin as fingers point and spitballs fly.

Is she the Red Queen, your fifth grade teacher, or your mother? When she enters, her first line, uttered in the theatrical privacy reserved for soliloquies and bathroom pep talks, is, “They did what?!” She closes her eyes, takes deep breaths, then beams winningly. It draws a laugh from the audience.

“The Adult in the Room” inevitably references the pressures women face regarding poise (“He tweeted what?” she whisper-shouts to her assistant — then apologizes for shouting), appearance (“Why aren’t you fat?” inquires one alleged young female future politician regarding Pelosi’s penchant for chocolate), and the impossible negotiation between traditional femininity and feminism (“I think everyone should raise five children before entering office,” she says. “Maybe not five. I am pro-choice”). However, these gestures are superficial at best in a play that upholds disturbingly conservative views.

Orlagh Cassidy stars as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in “The Adult in the Room,” a 75-minute monologue, directed by Heather Arnson and Conor Bagley. 
Orlagh Cassidy stars as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in “The Adult in the Room,” a 75-minute monologue, directed by Heather Arnson and Conor Bagley.
Michael Brosilow

Less a history lesson than a document of the male gaze, McMahon’s play enacts a form of juvenile misogyny that is disappointing, particularly in a moment of genuine national distress. Though it nominally presents Pelosi’s personal and political history — from her roots as the only daughter of a democratic member of Congress to her marriage and averted law school ambitions, her success as a volunteer, hostess, fundraiser, and mother of five in San Francisco, her catapult into politics proper at the age of 47 as the chosen successor of California congresswoman Sala Galante Burton, her advocacy for victims of the AIDS epidemic and her championing of the Affordable Care Act, as well as her Catholicism and her relationship with her Italian mother and namesake Annunciata — “The Adult in the Room” undermines Pelosi not by tactical argument but by crude caricature.

Is it anything other than condescension to show a woman under pressure stuffing bonbons into her mouth like Lucy Ricardo in a chocolate factory? Do we need to see Nancy Pelosi slurping and slinging back Diet Dr. Pepper before an imaginary national audience of girls? What is the purpose of watching the Speaker of the House leading her assistant through deep breathing exercises over the phone — or hearing her advise that AOC and the Squad do the same?

“The Adult in the Room” claims to tell Pelosi’s story but instead makes every indication that the only way a male author can stomach a woman in power is to portray her as a closet hysteric with a binge-eating problem. Tragically this is perhaps the most timely and accurate thing about it.

Irene Hsiao is a local freelance writer.