Before Trump vs. Hillary, there was Tonya vs. Nancy.
Back in 1994, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were the competing divas of American figure skating, their rivalry enhanced by their night-and-day personas. Tonya was muscular, blond, pug-nosed, and tacky; Nancy, willowy, dark, horsey, and tasteful. Nancy didn’t come from money but projected a patrician air. Tonya fulfilled most of the standard criteria for poor white trash. They even hailed from opposite ends of the country, Tonya raised in the Pacific Northwest, Nancy in a Boston suburb. Together they embodied the national divide that would give us the Mar-a-Lago presidency two decades down the line. Given what we know now, it was probably inevitable that Tonya’s pals would try to make her great again by attacking Nancy with a police baton.
And what we know now may be why the story’s getting renewed interest these days. After two decades as fodder for TV movies and novelty-show rehashes, it became the basis for a stage musical that premiered in Chicago last year. A Tonya biopic is expected in 2018. And Dan Aibel’s unhappy contribution, T., is currently getting its world premiere at the American Theater Company.
Aibel could’ve gone any number of ways with the material. Exploiting the class angle, for instance, he might’ve portrayed Tonya as a barbarian at the gates of elite figure skating—a poor little poor girl whose talent brings her this/close to triumph even as lumpen desperation casts her back down into the muck. Alternately, he might’ve tried the ugly-hair-and-makeup-of-the-90s approach.
He seems to have opted instead for presenting Tonya as (1) a victim of the parasitic, grasping men in her life, and (2) a cautionary figure, illustrating the dangers of fame and fortune in an America where it’s all about cashing in.
I say “seems” because T. fails to make either argument in a coherent, much less compelling, way. The thing comes across as smug gibberish, partly because Aibel’s careless storytelling fails to supply important information about the scandal, the people involved in it, or how they connect to one another, and partly because his gratuitous neo-Mametisms shoot for gritty only to hit insipid. Add a misshapen structure that lets Tonya’s dumb-as-rocks pals talk on and on while Tonya herself remains a cipher and Nancy never even shows up, and you’ve got a based-on-fact mess.
But that’s not all. Worse still is the relentlessly cartoonish treatment of the characters in Margot Bordelon‘s 95-minute staging, with its one-step-from-Honey Boo Boo vibe. Talk about magical thinking: After working hard to render practically everybody as ridiculous as possible, Bordelon and Aibel make a last-second bid to turn T. into an American tragedy. Which is what the Tonya Harding story may be, at heart. Just not here. v