‘The Reagan Years’ is tense, relentless and provocative

Photo by Leah Cooper
The Danger Brothers sing their theme song in Workhaus’ “The Reagan Years”: Walkman (Gabriel Murphy), Frisbee (Paul LaNave), and Moth (Michael Hanna)

Watching a play, it’s easy to forget that it goes two ways. You can see the actors and often they can see you. For the cast of Dominic Orlando’s brand-new play “The Reagan Years,” now at the Playwrights’ Center in a world premiere production by Workhaus Collective, the faces of the audience must be quite a sight, expressions shifting from anticipation to horror and dread. We squirmed in our seats and put our fingers in our ears (sorry, guns on stage make us do that), but we couldn’t look away.

The play takes us back to the 1980s, near the end of the Reagan presidency. (An art exhibit in the lobby, curated by John Ilg and related to the play, is worth arriving early or staying after to see. We had Chuck Avery’s photo of Reagan’s saddle in mind when we took our seats.) Four roommates are about to graduate from college and enter the big, wide, greedy, entitled world for which they have been preparing. Moth (short for Timothy) is an artist, Frisbee a stoner and a drunk, Walkman can’t wait to start climbing the corporate ladder, and Guy is their lord and master, clear from the moment he struts on stage.

Guy is the son of an enormously wealthy man who runs a corporation that makes bad things. Their “dorm” is a guesthouse on the family estate. They’ve been together long enough to assume a youthfully boastful name, “The Danger Brothers,” make up a song about themselves and have T-shirts printed. When the play opens, the floor is littered with cans, the table with bottles. More bottles come out, and bongs, and cocaine. If they can get through the day, they’ll begin the rest of their lives. But then Guy’s father’s company makes the news, not in a good way, and Guy picks up a beautiful hitchhiker on his morning motorcycle ride. Who is she, and why is she asking so many questions?

What happens next – more details would spoil it – is a tale of amorality, madness, privilege and poisonous complicity. “Do we throw it all away because we made a few mistakes?” Guy asks his roomies at a point well into the action. Of course they don’t. It’s the ’80s. Which aren’t that different from the ’10s.

The cast – Michael Hanna as Moth, Paul LaNave as Frisbee, Gabriel Murphy as Walkman, Bryan Porter as Guy, Jesse Scarborough-Ghent as Dawn, the hitchhiker, and Charlotte Calvert as Sybil, her friend – is strong and convincing, though LaNave spends too much time hunched over and scuttling like a bug. Orlando also serves as director, and he makes daring choices; this is a very physical play. The slo-mo sequences are cool. The exit at the back, stage left, is awkward for the actors. And sometimes the actors are painfully loud, projecting as if the theater is larger than it is.

These are smallish carps. “The Reagan Years” is a tense, relentless and provocative play that sticks in the mind, even if it never touches the heart. Ends May 2. FMI and tickets ($18 or pay-what-you-can).


Northrop announced its 2015-16 dance season while we were at AWP. Here’s in case you missed the news elsewhere.

Oct. 3: Salt Lake City’s Ballet West dances Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, with a 50-piece live orchestra. Oct. 24: New York-based Seán Curran Company performs with Ustat Shakirt Plus, a music group from the Kyrgyz Republic. Nov. 19: New York’s Dorrance Dance taps its way across the stage to music by Toshi Reagon and the band BIGLovely. (BTW, Toshi Reagon is the daughter of Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock.) Jan. 30: the return of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Feb. 13: New York’s Jessica Lang Dance, in a program of contemporary ballet and visual arts.

March 1: New York’s Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre brings Ailey’s signature piece, “Revelations.” March 30: Mark Morris Dance Group hasn’t been to Northrop since January 2005. Morris himself will lead the live baroque orchestra, chorus and soloists that accompanies his choreography of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.” April 6: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal presents its now story ballet, “Leonce and Lena.” April 27: Miami City Ballet performs an evening of Balanchine classics and a new work by Justin Peck, with live music by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů.

Tucked in among the dance dates: a Feb. 17 screening of the Oscar-nominated animated film “The Triplets of Belleville” (on Northrop’s big screen, which we haven’t yet seen), with live music by Benoît Charest, who wrote the score, and his eight-piece jazz ensemble Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville. Northrop is billing this as a nod to its historic jazz series, and we’ll take what we can get.

We can’t recall ever seeing so much live music in a Northrop dance season line-up. To reprise: an orchestra with Ballet West. A band for Seán Curran Company. Toshi Reagon with Dorrance Dance. Mark Morris and baroque orchestra. Miami City Ballet with orchestra. And Charest’s band. We’re cheering.

Season tickets are available now. Singles go on sale June 15.


Turns out the Minnesota Book Awards offer more than glass and glory. This year’s winners each took home a cash award of $500. Plus winners receive cash stipends from libraries around the state for author events, many funded by grants through the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library. All of which they probably spend on books.

The picks

Tonight (Tuesday, April 21) at Once Upon a Crime: Vidar Sundstøl presents “The Ravens.” The Norwegian author is on tour with the third book in his Minnesota Trilogy series, an international bestseller published by the University of Minnesota Press. 7 p.m. Free. Also Thursday, 7 p.m. at the Waseca Public Library; Friday, 3:30 p.m., at Cross River Heritage Center/Schroeder Area Historical Society; and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. at Nordic Center in Duluth. (The Duluth event is a Q&A, Lake Superior-inspired Nordic Buffet luncheon and book signing. Tickets $12. Contact krisnorway@q.com.)

Wednesday at Merriam Park Library: Paula Meehan and Joyce Sutphen: “Home by Starlight.” Dublin-born and -based Meehan is the 2015 recipient of the O’Shaughnessy Award for Irish Poetry; Sutphen is our poet laureate. Presented by the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library and the Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas, this evening of poetry and conversation promises to be lyrical, inspiring and enchanting. 7 p.m. Free.

Thursday at Highland Park Center Theater: “Jericho.” In Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s production of Jack Canfora’s new play, four 30-something New Yorkers navigate the emotional aftermath of September 11. Warren Bowles directs the regional premiere. Through May 10. FMI and tickets ($19-$28).

The weekend

Friday at the Regis Center for Art Foundry, University of Minnesota: 46th Annual University of Minnesota Iron Pour: New Shoes. What is it about an iron pour that’s so darned fascinating? The heat? The danger? The red river of molten iron? The muscles it takes to handle it? The nation’s longest-running academic sculptural iron pour was founded by Professor Wayne Potratz in 1970. In honor of his retirement in 2014, Tamsie Ringler, who leads the Community Collaboration Iron Pour at Franconia Sculpture Park, will fill a pair of Potratz’s shoes with iron. 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Free and open to the public.

Friday at Bedlam Lowertown: Schubert Club Mix: Stephen Prutsman, piano: “Bach and Forth.” Pianist, composer (and longtime Kronos Quartet collaborator), conductor, and former SPCO artistic partner (2004-07) Prutsman can play anything, as he’ll prove with a program that bounces from Bach to Rameau, Beethoven, Charlie Parker, traditional Rwandan and Uzbek music, and more. “The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II” is the frame and the thread that stitches the night together. This will be a wonderful night. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30 general, $13 students). Listen here to Prutsman’s latest album, “Passengers.” 

Plan ahead

We know for a fact that a lot of Twin Cities jazz fans annually drive through miles of cornfields to attend the Iowa City Jazz Festival. For its 25th year, the free festival in the charming college town (home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) has put together a stellar lineup that includes the Becca Stevens Band, Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls (we last saw Mahanthappa here with Ragamala Dance), Dave Douglas & High Risk, our own Atlantis Quartet, Julian Lage Trio, Ben Allison Think Free, and a Charles Lloyd quartet with Gerald Clayton, Joe Sanders and Kendrick Scott. Plus post-Lloyd fireworks. The dates: Thursday, July 2 through Saturday, July 4. FMI and schedule.

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