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“N/A” reviewed

Seeing the new play at Lincoln Center feels almost like a busman’s holiday in these politically oversaturated times. With politicians bashing each other every day in the halls of Congress and in the news, not to mention a certain presidential debate occurring on the same night of the play’s opening, who wants to see a drama whose two characters are not even thinly veiled versions of Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

Well, anyone interested in thoughtful writing and high-quality performances, that’s who. Playwright Mario Correa (Tail! Spin!) spent several years working as a congressional aide, and the coyly titled N/A feels wholly authentic in its depiction of a series of conversations between the venerable power broker (Holland Taylor, who also waded into political waters at the same theater in Ann, about the late Texas governor Ann Richards) and the progressive firebrand (Ana Villafañe, On Your Feet!), not that the character’s names are ever said in the play.

Set entirely in N’s congressional office dominated by a large wooden gavel in a glass display case, the play begins just after A wins her first primary, defeating longtime pol and N’s close colleague Joe Crowley. Her victory marked a watershed in Democratic congressional politics, led by the members of the so-called “Squad.” She also represented a new breed of politicians who communicate with their constituents via such means as livestreaming which, when we first see her, she’s doing directly from N’s office when she’s left to wait there alone.

N/A doesn’t concern itself so much with political issues, since the two figures are in basic agreement about most of them except in terms of degree (N scoffs as A’s “Green New Deal,” for instance). Rather, it’s methodology that separates the two, with the ever-practical N using nuts-and-bolts means to pressure Democrats to get enough votes, 218 (her “favorite number”) to pass a bill. A, on the other hand, believes that major change will only come about through getting enough people passionately on board to create a movement.

Their arguments about such things as abolishing ICE are interesting but not revelatory, and political junkies won’t find much new here. But Correa displays a gift for well-crafted comic repartee that feels true to the real-life figures, even if N often comes across more like a Borscht Belt comic than seasoned politico and A not quite matching her real-life inspiration in terms of wit and charisma. Most of the exchanges in the play ring true, however, such as N boasting about her role in passing Obama’s landmark health care reform bill.

“Yes, we can?” she scoffs, echoing Obama’s trademark slogan. “No! Yes, I did!”

The evening features many funny moments that help alleviate the long-winded political debates, including N attempting to placate her granddaughter about a recent gift. “Bunny, Eleanor Roosevelt Barbie is a real Barbie!” N assures her. “She’s historical!”

The 80-minute play delves into darker territory as well, especially in a scene that takes place after the Jan. 6 insurrection revealing the fear that A felt for her life while desperately hiding in her office from the violent insurrectionists.

Under the straightforward direction of Diane Paulus, the two actresses deliver sterling performances, with the veteran Taylor milking every bit of humor from N’s sardonic asides and Villafañe capturing A’s fervent idealism. If N/A ultimately doesn’t have the thematic depth or resonance to make it a truly great play, it provides a vivid reminder that the art of politics can actually consist of more than mere name calling.