These are characters who express their frustration with and fatigue from the Trump administration through an array of privileged prisms—and as a white woman in my 40s who’s lived in California the majority of my life and is experiencing all those same feelings, I am very much the target audience for their rants. But despite some amusing moments of recognition, “Coastal Elites” doesn’t offer much in terms of wit or insight into this presidency or the dire situation in which our nation finds itself. It’s actually weirdly safe in the way it tells us what we want to hear in the way we want to hear it, not unlike the echo chamber of Twitter, where @PaulRudnickNY is a consistently hilarious follow. “Coastal Elites” certainly won’t change anyone’s mind, but then again, that’s probably not Rudnick’s aim.
What is impressive, though, is the obvious technique required to pull off these monologues, and the fact that presenting them in this form is so much more intimate and unforgiving than a theatrical setting would have been. For these five performers, there truly is nowhere to hide. All are shot head-on in medium close-up, as if they’re on the other end of a Zoom call from us. Every squint and raised eyebrow, every smile and snarl, every costume detail is right there, all the time. But the words themselves hold us in their thrall only intermittently. As is so often the case in anthologies, “Coastal Elites” is hit and miss, with some pieces that are stronger than others.
We begin with Bette Midler as an Upper West Side retiree named Miriam, who was a public school teacher for 45 years. Her religions are Judaism and The New York Times, and she carries her NPR tote bag around town like a badge of honor. “That’s how we recognize teach other, women like me,” she shares conspiratorially. “It’s a secret code.” But despite her civilized, intellectual exterior, Miriam is speaking from an interrogation room at a police station (the segment is called “Lock Her Up”), and we are the officer on the receiving end of her diatribe. She’s there because she got into a scrape with a jerk in a MAGA hat at a Starbucks in the East Village, a Trump fan who likes to wear his favorite red cap in places like this “to own the libs,” as they say. Midler is always a pro, of course, and she’s called on to display a lot of range in a short period of time. But this kind of knowingly broad, comic character isn’t exactly a stretch for her, and Miriam feels more like a litany of stereotypical traits than an actual human being.