Both the pandemic and the presidency of Donald Trump are national traumas destined to damage and transform America for a long, long time. Unprecedented disruption has a way of doing that, and America’s arts are due for an inevitable flood of books, TV shows, plays, films, and everything else that will work through the rise of thuggish authoritarianism, a deadly virus, and the resulting isolation and fear. HBO’s Coastal Elites tests those dramatically queasy waters by delivering essentially five one-person shows about people—articulately vocal fans of neither scourge ravaging the nation—who vent some pent-up anger. A nakedly theatrical conceit from playwright and screenwriter Paul Rudnick, originally intended for a pre-pandemic run at New York’s Public Theater, the special is a deliberately claustrophobic, remotely-shot provocation, a singularly topical art form that sequestered and frustrated viewers may or may not find cathartic enough to sit through.
Luckily for Rudnick, director Jay Roach, and a viewing public perhaps wary of adding frantic and frustrated Zoom calls to those already comprising much of their personal interaction these days, the coastal elites here are played by five terrific actors. Bette Midler kicks the special off as Miriam, a Jewish, brashly liberal, retired New York public school teacher whose run-in with a MAGA-hatted Trump supporter in a Starbucks finds her giving a statement at the police station. As Mark, a moderately successful actor in Los Angeles, Dan Levy undergoes a tele-session with a new therapist (pinch-hitting for his COVID-stricken doctor), discussing his conflicted anxiety about possibly landing a career-making role as the first gay superhero lead in a film. Issa Rae’s ultra-wealthy Black Lives Matter organizer Callie (coast unspecified) bemusedly drinks rosé while she relates her darkly illuminating run-in with old prep school acquaintance Ivanka Trump at the White House.
Vermont-dwelling Clarissa, Sarah Paulson’s internet meditation guru, is the one subject not on Zoom, instead interrupting her latest, green screen-backgrounded serenity session to relate to her viewers her disastrous decision to spend lockdown with her very red state family in (suddenly timely) Wisconsin. Finally, Unbelievable’s Kaitlyn Dever is Sharynn, a young, Wyoming-native nurse whose just-completed tenure volunteering at a coronavirus-overwhelmed hospital in New York City brings one previous subject’s story back into focus.
At 87 minutes, that’s a lot of anguished yet wryly funny confessionals to take in. Especially since Coastal Elites is presented in full-on monologist style, each person’s unseen interlocutor unheard, with the actors all offering up essentially a 15-minute one-act on the subject of helpless rage, sorrow, and fear. Midler’s segment begins the talk-a-thon by following up the twee credits sequence (the introductory texts “Five heart-tugging monologues” and “Five unhinged rants” are crossed out and ultimately replaced with the tagline-friendly “Five desperate confessions from people barely coping with the new abnormal”) with a burst of overly performative schtick. (Her doting Jewish mom compares doctor-children with her police interrogator.) But the special’s true value as a showcase for a handful of terrifically shaded performances gradually emerges through the occasional overwritten staginess.
Still, the relentless march of five separate monologues all about the maddeningly implacable evils each character faces in this America of COVID and Trump is, as stated, a lot to take in in one sitting. With each monologue spaced out over the shutdown, from Miriam’s January meltdown to Sharynn’s weary but unbowed decompression session in April, the special seemingly marks the passing of this benighted half-year from breaking point to breaking point, which does threaten to exhaust viewers’ own dwindling reserves of forbearance. Levy’s segment, centering as it does mainly on the double-edged sword of being an “out and proud” actor in Hollywood, benefits both from Levy’s thoroughly knowing and lived-in portrayal of an oft-pigeonholed actor, but also from how it (apart from a mini-rant about Mike Pence’s harmful homophobia) offers a respite from the other stories’ overt topicality.
That current-events speechifying is as unapologetic as Coastal Elites’ theatricality. That’s not likely a problem for whatever percentage of HBO’s viewership chooses to tune in for an evening of uniformly gifted actors lending voice to some of their own quarantine- and Trump-rattled brains, and that’s fine. Should a conservative playwright choose to round up some like-minded actors to passionately assert that things in America are just swell right now, well, good luck. (Jon Voight and James Woods are waiting by their phones, no doubt.) But Coastal Elites—the title itself as much a provocation to the MAGA crowd as the inclusion of noted Trump-baiter Midler—has to contend with the presupposition that its quintet of complainers are just preaching to the choir, as it were.
And it is that—again, unrepentantly. Miriam gradually unfolds her tale of MAGA microaggression (followed by feigned victimhood) with the brio of, well, Bette Midler at her fullest. But the segment is all “what I should have done” wish fulfillment for anyone ever sent into an inner boil at the sight of one of those red caps sitting atop a post-2016 smirk. Paulson’s confrontation with her Fox News-parroting family comes complete with a final twist involving her reticent father that, while certainly plausible considering one particular longtime Trump target, reflects Rudnick’s hope of the secret resistance simmering in even the most Trump-friendly household.
Dever’s concluding story succumbs to Rudnick’s urge to fold the evening of isolated confessionals back in on itself in search of an unnecessarily tidy conclusion, but Dever herself is remarkable. In her unadorned, exhausted tale of one particular patient, Dever, all rumpled scrubs and goggle-marks lingering on her drawn, freckled face, recalls no one so much as a young Sissy Spacek. Her thinly veiled function is as the special’s hype person for a previous character, yet it allows Dever the space to say a great deal in her neophyte nurse’s plain-spoken catalog of the daily, grinding horrors of front-line medical workers.
It’s in Rae’s story of class, race, and access among the super-rich that both the strengths and weaknesses of Coastal Elites’ approach stand out equally. Easily the tightest written and most well-constructed of the bunch, Callie’s wine-flavored tale of the attempts of performatively attentive school acquaintance Ivanka to charm the activist into joining her father’s side is, in Rae’s hands, riveting, ultimately chilling stuff. The Insecure creator spins her insightful dissection of the vapid emptiness and neediness of the Trump clan so compellingly that it’s easy to forget she’s playing a character that doesn’t actually exist.
But she is—they all are. And, as purgative and entertaining as Coastal Elites’ witty and often wrenching confessions may be to those on the same frazzled and anxious wavelength, watching carefully written and expertly performed fairy tales of personal defiance and minor triumphs makes dull, boorish, and decidedly less clever reality that much starker upon reflection.