Playwright Paul Rudnick has never been comfortable with the term “coastal elites,” that sneering nod to educated professionals who live in California cities or along the Eastern seaboard.
“What’s always bothered me is a sense that the coastal elites are not Americans — that they’re not citizens, that they don’t count,” says Rudnick. “No. If you’re going to listen to everyone in the Midwest, then you have to listen to the coasts as well. We are all in this country together.”
Rudnick has not so much leaned into the term as he has driven a truck through it for the HBO special “Coast Elites,” a collection of five monologues starring Bette Midler, Sarah Paulson, Issa Rae, Dan Levy and Kaitlyn Dever. They may play stressed-out liberals but they’re so much more than stereotypes.
“There are elements of truth, but there is also an enormous variety in people on our coast,” he says. “Just the way Trump supporters are always very angry about being stereotyped, they’re very happy to stereotype the coast. And I wanted to explore that.”
Midler plays a left-leaning retired teacher who recounts the time she angrily confronted a MAGA hat wearing man and Paulson is a meditation therapist sparring with her right-wing family. “Take a deep, healing breath and imagine you’re not even on Twitter or Facebook — or Xanax,” she advises.
Midler, who has not been shy about her disdain for Trump and who admits to being “enraged nearly every day,” is also not shy about her respect for Rudnick.
“He is a great observer of the multitudes of selves we all carry around inside ourselves, and how we experience hypocrisy and tragedy simultaneously in our lives,” she wrote in an email.
In addition to Midler, Levy plays an actor at a career crossroads, Rae portrays a rich frenemy of Ivanka Trump, while Dever is a Midwest nurse who comes to aid New Yorkers. Targets include Trump, Mike Pence, Ivanka Trump and anyone wearing one of those red baseball caps.
“It was just a kind of response to the world’s collective nervous breakdown,” says Rudnick. “I wanted to show how people so need to be heard and understood.”
Rudnick, whose plays include “Jeffrey” and “I Hate Hamlet,” began the play a year ago and it was intended to be performed off-Broadway. The pandemic ended those plans but HBO thought it could make the transition to the small screen.
So Midler’s monologue is now captured by a police interrogation camera, Paulson’s became a YouTube video, Levy’s was transformed into an online therapy session and Rae’s piece shifted to a Skype call. Rudnick added the nurse’s monologue to incorporate the coronavirus.
“The monologue format was ideally suited in many ways to this kind of remote filming. You get that intensity and that focus that a monologue demands,” he says. “It ended up taking exactly the right form. And that was through no particular planning on my own. But I was very grateful for it.”
The actors performed their pieces in quarantine earlier this summer under the direction of Jay Roach, who knows a bit about political films (“Recount” and “Bombshell”) as well as funny ones (“Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents”). Rudnick credits Roach and the actors for shaping the works, despite being spread out over the country: “We were just all of us thinking on our feet.”
The first one he wrote is the one performed by Midler and was created in honor of his mother and aunts, women “for whom justice and the arts and The New York Times were absolutely plasma.”
Rudnick kept writing, shaping and editing the monologues as the pandemic went on, adding Black Lives Matter material after the death of George Floyd. “I wanted to sort of walk a fine line between topicality and becoming dated.”
He included a section which seems prescient: A character in a monologue expresses horror at the way Trump mocked the late Sen. John McCain because he was captured during the Vietnam War. That controversy has resurfaced amid reports that Trump made disparaging comments toward the military.
“I was deeply offended at Trump’s treatment of McCain. And I didn’t even agree with McCain on most issues. But I thought that man was a hero,” says Rudnick. “And I think that man sacrificed in a way that almost none of us have and certainly not Trump, who was a five-time draft dodger. So I thought to insult him in that way just felt like such a hideous kind of behavior.”
Rudnick may be a die-hard blue-stater and many of the actors in “Coastal Elites” may dislike Trump, but he hopes the president’s supporters and independents will also tune in to watch his monologues. He sees a passionate political engagement all around.
“Any divide between the personal and the political has become nonexistent,” he says. “And that’s actually really the subject of ‘Coastal Elites’ — the fact that politics has become not something apart from our lives, but it’s in our blood stream now.”