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All New Hampshire's a Stage

A playwright sizes up the theatrics of the GOP performers who want to be America's next top politician.

| Tue Jan. 10, 2012 6:00 AM EST

Sen. Kelly Ayotte R-N.H. introducing GOP candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney at a rally in Derry, New Hampshire.: WEBN-TV/FlickrSen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) introducing GOP candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at a rally in Derry, New Hampshire WEBN-TV/FlickrFor the past few days, New Hampshire has been hosting a theater festival like no other. Featuring five alpha-male stars, it has attracted legions of media and transformed frigid football fields, stuffy gymnasiums, and metal fabrication factories into site-specific one-man shows. As a playwright and actor, I came to New Hampshire to do research on the quadrennial spectacle for a new play I'm developing. Here's a quick review of this year's acts (or campaign events, if you must) so far.

The Mitt Romney Extravaganza on Sunday morning combined Broadway polish with a luscious set. Inside the Rochester Opera House, Romney bounded onstage in sleek brown jeans and flashed a megawatt smile that seemed to scream, "Move over Hugh Jackman!" Backed by his J.Crew catalog-ready family of square-jawed sons, he entered to "Born Free," that Kid Rock anthem to being "free, like a raging river" and "wild, like an untamed stallion."

Romney's monologue was highly polished; it even included an Obamaesque line: "I was just a high school kid with skinny legs." Meanwhile, his ad-libs were pricelessly awkward, including this early riff: "I can feel the warmth in this room, not just temperature-wise, but emotional-wise." Romney has a nervy, almost franticly enthusiastic delivery—think Jimmy Fallon. And he never stops trying to improve his routine, though it can be rocky along the way. Once again quoting from the patriotic song "America the Beautiful"—material he'd given a rather odd twist in Iowa—he quipped, "I told people in Iowa corn counts as amber waves of grain." That only drew a few light titters.

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But fans and critics seemed to agree that the Romney show is a juggernaut. New York Times photographer Jim Wilson, who's been covering the New Hampshire productions since 1976, said of Romney's: "It's one of the better-crafted campaigns I've seen at this stage. It's operating more like a campaign would in the fall." Pete Foley, 55, who'd brought his nephews up from Concord, Massachusetts, was wowed, saying, "That's the first time that I've thought Romney is going to be a problem" for Obama, whom Foley supports.

The Ron Paul Carnival, which was staged in the basement conference room of an outdoorsy resort lodge in Meredith on Sunday afternoon, is another heck of a show, though for different reasons. With supporters and reporters alike packed in and overflowing out the side doors, all I could see was Paul's grey head bobbing above the crowd. He seemed a reluctant ringmaster, while his supporters—who record, photograph, and document his events with an unparalleled zealotry—are just an innocent question away from showering you with free DVDs, copies of the Constitution, and terrifying possibilities for abuses of federal power.

"What if Obama rounded up all the journalists?" asked Jim Burr, 59, who had driven 17 hours from Pittsburgh to support Paul.

This lends a kind of performance-art feel to the proceedings. The carnival had spread throughout the state, with Paul's supporters attending events not just for their own but for all of the candidates, holding up signs and greeting everyone with a combination of folksy politeness and the kind of esoteric enthusiasm found among Dungeons and Dragons aficionados.

The Newt Gingrich Experience, which I sweated through at the Pinkerton Academy gymnasium in Derry on Sunday evening, is like a strange Chekhov revival that you know you should appreciate more, but really you just can't wait for the intermission. And it never comes, as Gingrich cruises right into audience questions. Gingrich himself was unfazed by the stilted atmosphere, declaring that he felt "an electric air" in the room, while someone coughed softly in the back. There'd been some music before things got started—'80s themes like Joe Esposito's "You're the Best Around" and country classics like Brooks and Dunn's "Only in America"—but that, and any sense of fun, drained away as the professorial Gingrich took to the stage. He had a motley crew of supporters assembled behind him, but a couple rows of goateed guys in sweatshirts and boots next to a small flag was hardly enough to make the production pop.

Gingrich does have a sense of humor, yet somehow he's not funny at all. He got off a few plodding jokes, proudly citing Ronald Reagan: "When you're brother-in-law's unemployed, it's called a recession. When you're unemployed it's called a depression. When Carter's unemployed, it's called a recovery." This got him some laughs, prompting him to add, "Don't be surprised if I use that again." Other than that it was his standard stemwinder, full of very unpregnant pauses and self-assured bloviations. Perhaps the oddest part of his performance was his wife Calista, who stood by him the entire time, smiling but practically frozen in place. Her bright red lipstick and helmet of brilliant blond hair mesmerizingly suggested a bid for best supporting actress in an inanimate role. After 40-plus minutes you started to feel like somebody should just take pity and grab her a chair.

There is a dreary, almost Brechtian quality to the Gingrich performance, which leaves you wondering if there's a subtext that's greater than just the words you're missing. His imagery tends to be vaguely dark and foreboding. Still, Gingrich has an avid fan base of his own, which included John Baker, 54, from Derry, a route salesmen for Frito Lay, who nodded and called out in affirmation several times. "Newt seems to be the brightest bulb," he said, explaining his support. "He understands the world better than I do."

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