Dispatches from the hell of early 2020, starring Bette Midler, Sarah Paulson and Issa Rae
The five monologues making up Paul Rudnick's "Coastal Elites" were originally planned for an early 2020 New York staging, to be taped for a later HBO special.
The COVID-19 pandemic preempted the "live theater" part of those plans. This gave Rudnick and his director, Jay Roach, of "Recount," "Game Change" and the recent Megyn Kelly/Roger Ailes docudrama "Bombshell," time to update the material to respond directly to the early months of the coronavirus crisis. It made sense, given the monologues' primary subject: How Trump and his supporters are setting the tone for these ever-threatening days.
"Five desperate confessions from people barely coping with the new abnormal" is how Rudnick frames "Coastal Elites," which starts with "Lock Her Up," a tour-de-force for Bette Midler. She's in a Manhattan police station, relaying to an unseen policeman the reasons why she's been hauled in.
Her character, Miriam Nessler, is a retired public school teacher and full-time culture vulture, who has as much to say about the difference between reading the New York Times in print vs. online as she does about the MAGA hat-sporting man with whom she got into it, in an East Village coffee shop.
Here, both writer and actress shine. Rudnick makes Miriam a paragon of New York survival instinct. Midler's character is hilariously snobby about anyone not from the five-borough region, as when she dismisses "flyover states" with the priceless caveat: "I mean, I fly over them, but I wave!"
Even in the more uneven and discursive monologues, the performers take care of business. In "Supergay," a struggling actor (Dan Levy of "Schitt's Creek") debriefs his substitute Zoom therapist on his recent, fraught audition for the world's first openly gay superhero movie. Levy makes every unheard question (we, the audience, are his therapist) seem truly spontaneous, even when the writing turns earnest and a mite soft. In each of the five, director Roach allows the monologues to run in long stretches, interrupted by a few skip-forward moments.
"The Blonde Cloud" finds Issa Rae ("Insecure") catching up via Zoom with a fellow boarding school graduate. Both women were a year behind Ivanka Trump, the premise has it, and Rae's character processes the odd experience of recently visiting the Trump White House with her brokerage firm founder dad, at Trump's behest. I suppose if any monologue in "Coastal Elites" flirts with character assassination, it's this one, but the weakness here is more a matter of simple overwriting.
If #2 and #3 disappoint, the final two complement and complete the Midler monologue shrewdly and well. Sarah Paulson (next up: "Ratched") portrays the host of "Mindful Meditations," a livestreaming program designed to "soothe and enlighten." We cannot "allow political trauma to poison your bliss," she says, though soon enough she herself cracks. Rudnick's monologue relays her recent decision to isolate with her COVID-denying, Trump-supporting family back home in Wisconsin.
Here, Rudnick lays his feelings bare by way of one exasperated liberal braving unfriendly waters. Paulson's terrific, and when the monologue takes a serious turn, it sticks; it feels authentic and plausible, not ginned-up for pathos.
Rudnick added a fifth for the HBO version, showcasing "Unbelievable" and "Booksmart" star Kaitlyn Dever as a Wyoming nurse relocated temporarily to Manhattan in April 2020 to deal with the pandemic at its worst. Not that it matters, or that it was on Rudnick's or Roach's mind, but this one's the one that might actually lower the emotional defenses of the average Trump supporter in the average flyover state.
Can we really fault any writer, or anyone with an audience, for not seeking common ground with The Other Side right now? I'm still wrestling with that one. Roach handles the pacing and rhythm of all five beautifully, as do the actors. It is very difficult, however, to make such politically toxic recent history work as comic truth with a serious dimension. "Coastal Elites" manages it just enough.
Three stars (out of four)
Rating: TV-MA (for language)
Running time: 1:27
Available: HBO, HBO Max, on demand