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The clash between AOC and Nancy Pelosi is now a play

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NEW YORK — This was not how newly elected members of the House of Representatives were supposed to behave. And yet, days after she won her seat in 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, was storming the offices of Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), perhaps the most powerful legislative leader the Capitol had seen in a half-century. Ocasio-Cortez was there alongside the activists who powered her rise, and who were calling on the likely next speaker of the House to prioritize an aggressive environmental agenda.

Their relationship only got more volatile from there, full of public recriminations and private reconciliations. Those one-on-one meetings between Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez are the inspiration for a new world-premiere play at Lincoln Center Theater making its official opening Thursday. Called “N/A,” the two-hander depicts A as a political ingenue arriving in Washington full of revolutionary fervor and an audience of stans, trying to find an accord with N, a steely wielder of legislative leverage.

“I was fascinated in how these two women who share similar goals … have such different worldviews,” said the playwright, Mario Correa, while sitting in a subterranean, windowless rehearsal space far below Lincoln Center. “I think our character N, much like the real-life Pelosi, sees power as a set of levers and the acquisition of power as a very linear thing. And AOC, much like our A, sees power as coming through a movement and that it doesn’t have to be through the levels of congressional operations.”

Correa’s interest in the topic came from watching Congress up close. Born in Chile, he moved to the D.C. area when he was 6 for his father’s job as a cultural attaché at the Chilean Embassy. The unsettled political situation back home led them to put down roots in Bethesda, Md., where Correa attended Walt Whitman High School. After Maryland legislator Connie Morella knocked on his family’s door one summer afternoon and said she was running for Congress, Correa signed up as a volunteer for her campaign.

Morella was a Republican running in an open seat in heavily Democratic Montgomery County in 1986, but she was pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights and pro-environment. She won, and Correa scuttled his plans to attend the University of Virginia and instead enrolled at Georgetown so he could also work for Morella on Capitol Hill.

He was still a teenager, and it was a heady experience — making under $20,000 a year, eating hors d’oeuvres left over from receptions and fundraisers for dinner, helping write health-care legislation, and watching as congressman Tom DeLay came by the office to whip votes when another Republican was needed. Pelosi entered Congress the same year that Morella did, 1987, and because there were so few women in Congress, the pair struck up an unlikely cross-partisan friendship, with Morella jokingly referring to her colleague as “the gentle-lady from Baltimore,” where Pelosi grew up.

“Connie Morella was really the most formative force in my life and imbued me with this fascination with women in politics and women who had to go against the grain in politics,” Correa recalled. “Nothing was ever easy. There was no vote for my boss that was obvious. And so it was fascinating to watch.”

“I think of Shakespeare: ‘The force of his own merit makes his way,’” Morella, now 93, said of her former protégé, quoting “Henry VIII.” “Politics really got into his blood from his time with me, but he really had to make his own way in this world.”

In 2002, Morella was all but redistricted out of office, and Correa went to work as a lobbyist, later moving to New York to see whether he could make it as a writer. His first play, “Tail! Spin!,” used leaked emails, texts and court testimony for a verbatim reenactment of the sex scandals of Anthony Weiner, Larry Craig, Mark Foley and Mark Sanford. He put it up at the New York International Fringe Festival, and, later, humorist Mo Rocca, Correa’s childhood best friend, helped it land an off-Broadway run starring Rachel Dratch.

Correa moved to Los Angeles, kept writing plays and co-wrote the screenplay for “Dark Waters,” a Todd Haynes-directed thriller about a crusading environmental attorney. The idea of staging the confrontation between Ocasio-Cortez and Pelosi occurred to him in the midst of covid.

“I was wondering: How is theater ever going to come back? And I thought, well, if it’s going to come back, to make something producible, it has to be as small as possible,” he said. “So I thought, let’s have two characters. And they can never touch. So who are two people who are constantly circling each other but never really connect?”

Despite being two of the most recognizable members of Congress, Ocasio-Cortez and Pelosi remain caricatures in much of the public’s eye.

“We never get to see how these people are when they aren’t on camera,” said Ana Villafañe, who plays A opposite Holland Taylor, who plays N.

Villafañe, known in theater circles for playing Gloria Estefan in the jukebox musical “On Your Feet!,” said she wrote down the names of Ocasio-Cortez’s parents on the top of the play’s script, to remind herself of how rooted the congresswoman (and A) is in her relationship with them. Villafañe said she saw Ocasio-Cortez as someone who is often not taken seriously as a result of her background, age and gender.

“This is a woman who dares to point out that this world is not built for her and she feels doesn’t represent her, and so she takes matters into her own hands,” she said. “There is a backlash to her, but I think it is to do with who she is and the assumptions people make about women like her, and women like me, and less to do with who she is and her politics. And it is exhausting. I realized while rehearsing the play that I should send her a gift card to get a massage or something.”

Taylor, a multi-Emmy-nominated veteran television actor, stressed that while she was not actually playing Pelosi, her character has been shaped by the same life experiences.

“She is one hundred percent motivated by the highest possible good for the country,” she said. “She has her eye on the prize. Getting 218 votes on any bill is the most important thing. As she says in the play, they are all there to get things done.”

Although the play relies on reported accounts of the interactions and relationship between Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez, it is not a verbatim retelling like “Tail! Spin!” — it stretches into the unknown, like “Hillary and Clinton,” Lucas Hnath’s 2019 Broadway play about the relationship between the 42nd president and his wife. N is a doting grandmother, like by all accounts the actual Pelosi is, but also has a defensiveness that the public Pelosi seldom shows — N resents the suggestion that the rising generation has had it harder than she did, despite her (like the real Pelosi) being the daughter of the mayor of Baltimore. If the actual Pelosi was a loyal political partner to President Barack Obama, N doesn’t think much of his political skills, to say nothing of his predecessor’s.

All N cares about is that A is a reliable Democratic vote, but A wants to be something more. “What about uprooting the calcified political structures that perpetuate social and economic inequity?” she says when N wants to know what she wants to accomplish. “What about conceptualizing a nation predicated not on the myth of who we are but on an honest accounting of how profoundly we’ve failed to meet its promise and how urgently we need to act if we’re to have any chance of even approaching realization?” (A spokesperson for the real-life Pelosi declined to comment; a spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez did not respond to a request for comment.)

“Mario is putting into language things we don’t have access to,” said Diane Paulus, the show’s director. “We get to see what a conversation between two powerful women would be like, and then the show ends, but it is the kind of conversation that continues.”

Correa said that as the rehearsals progressed, it became clear that his play was less about the mechanics of legislation than he intended and more about two powerful women trying to figure the other out.

“Each of their points of view is their generational point of view,” he said. “This is a story about generational change that is beyond politics into how we see the world. It is two people at different stages of life. You watch it, and you think, ‘This thing is real.’ This is what happens when people come together in different stages of life to argue over their differences.”

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