Michelle Clunie finds love in politics in ’US’
How much trouble can two little letters get you into? Plenty, it turns out, when the alphabetical coupling in question is "u" and "s." Put them together, and you'll have a word that brings into question all the possibilities, and complexities, of both a couple united and a country divided.
"US" is the busy, troublemaking title of Michelle Clunie's play-currently in its world premiere run at the Lion Theatre, through September 29, 2012.
Known to this website's demographic for her roles as Melanie Marcus on the Showtime version of "Queer as Folk," the Portland-born film, TV and theater vet stars opposite Jeff LeBeau in "US"-which Clunie, in her playwright and political junky mode, describes as "a progressive love story."
A happy coincidence
Set against the backdrop of the 2008 Presidential election, "US" immerses audiences in the power struggles that take place in the campaign war room as well as the bedroom.
That the play opened in previews on the very same night that Bill Clinton took to the Democratic Convention’s podium to make the case for a second Obama term was, Clunie says, nothing more than good timing.
"I didn’t plan for it to be opening two months before the general election," she says, adding that this coincidence is a welcome one which will hopefully resonate with those for whom an election year cycle often means getting involved for the benefit of the causes they hold near and dear.
"The play," she notes, "has developed into a piece that talks about the power people have when they come together. That will always triumph over corporate interests, as long as people do not underestimate their power. I think often times, the powers that be want people to feel helpless-because then they go into apathy and do nothing. But hope is very dangerous, because it inspires you to make that phone call and to do that one thing every day that helps push progress forward."
As for how "US" moved forward from inspiration to idea to full-fledged play, Clunie recalls: "Twelve years ago, I did a workshop of ’After the Fall,’ by Arthur Miller-in which a man is taking inventory of his life. I played Maggie (the character Miller based on Marilyn Monroe), and fell in love with that character...I think, because she was very raw and unbridled, but she had vulnerability and heart. I began to think that some day, I might do a female version of the play loosely based on the Maggie character, where she’s taking not only an inventory of her life, but of the relationship she’s in."
Flash forward to four years ago, and Clunie found herself firmly on the side of Hillary during the Democratic primaries. Of the dynamics explored in "US," Clunie says, "I wanted to capture the energy I felt that year...first for Hillary, then for Obama."
But was it difficult to make the switch when Obama became the official pick? In her voice, you can still hear notes of disappointment for the administration that wasn’t to be.
"What was interesting for me," Clunie asserts, "is that Hillary Clinton was, and is, always one of the smartest people in the room. She would have made an incredible Madame President. I was so proud [to be supporting her campaign]. You really felt, as a woman, that we were so close to achieving full equality. It’s hard to give that up. I didn’t understand Obama. But when it came time for me to make the switch...of course I did."
A political love story
Now an enthusiastic supporter of a second term, Clunie’s analysis of again-candidate Obama mirrors some of the themes her play touches upon-including the bittersweet realization that progressive politics, like evolving relationships, are often victims of audacious hope.
"What I find interesting," says the playwright of Obama’s post-honeymoon period backlash, "is that some of the people who were so desperately in love with him [as a candidate] judged him harshly in his first term...whereas I’ve come to love him more and more."
Speaking to the dual nature of her play’s subject matter, Clunie notes that just as troubled relationships often become stronger after infatuation gives way to certain realities, political candidates (and causes) tend to gain strength once the glossy sheen has worn off.
"After the fall, after the loss of innocence," she says, "I think there’s a sense that when your heroes turn out to be anything but, you go through something...but when you come out the other side, there’s a certain beauty in how love can be progressive."
Turning the conversation to the play’s two main characters, Clunie’s enthusiasm actually makes the thorny dynamics of conflict, disappointment and unrealized dreams seem, well, kinda sexy.
"The play," she says, "has a real sense of American myth...that belief that no matter how bad it gets, these two characters still have a certain optimism about them. And, of course, politics needs a love story. Especially in the progressive movement, because you really are fighting to make America the best it can be...and there’s a real romanticism in that."
"US" runs through September 29, 2012. At the Lion Theatre, 410 West 42 Street, New York City, NY. Tuesdays at 7pm; Wednesday-Friday at 8pm; Saturday/Sunday at 3pm. Run time, 90 minutes. For tickets ($40), visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.