On a long but fascinating Saturday, I attended too very different theatrical debates. One was a gaggle of twenty-somethings high on vodka and cocaine debating literature, privilege, and toxicity, and the other was an alcohol-infused discussion by the far-right on political agenda and Christian identity. Both were late-night, wildly combative dances due to the drunkenness of unfiltered truth. But only one really captured the essence of authentic humanity and its deep-rooted human conflicts, and it was not the one I expected. I also must add that neither are gatherings I would want to attend, let alone be entrapped in the devises of their theoretical debates, post-ironic jokes, and spiritual assertions, deliberating and engaging in the drill of reflectiveness and self-pity. Only one of the meetings pulled me in though, keeping me curious and attentive. The other just made me feel old and cranky.
Spiraling into the night, backed by a towering collection of hardback novels, collected but not loved, a group of young adults; twenty-somethings trying to understand their relationships to one another and the world that surrounds them, gather on a Sunday night for book club. Guided into a youth culture of disappointment and dismissive verbiage by an awkwardly scripted narrator, played earnestly by Alice Ruby Frankel (AAS’s The Seagull), Atlantic Theater Company delivers to the door the World premier of Sunday at the Linda Gross Theater, a new work by playwright Jack Thorne (Broadway’s King Kong, Harry Potter…) that attempts to give us a new vantage point on the lives of these young somewhat dysfunctional and erratic souls.
As directed with oddly inserted choreography by Lee Sunday Evans (LCT3’s In the Green), the evening of novel introspection is bookended with an interaction more interesting than anything in between. A nervous neighbor by the name of Bill, portrayed with quiet intensity by Maurice Jones (MTC’s Linda) comes to the door, asking the tenants to keep it down tonight, as it is Sunday and he knows they are having a gathering. Marie, gently played by Sadie Scott (TNG’s Downtown Race Riot) assures him that it is just a friendly book club, not a party, and that they will be quiet. It’s clear almost instantly that this is not going to be the case, especially as we watch the attendees arrive one by one with a stifling bland introduction by the narrator. The structural narration feels lazy, giving us all this info and nuance for each rather than letting the story and their interactions do the work. And it is presented by one of the most unclear and least likable characters at the gathering. He keeps feeding us, like spoonfuls of corn flakes mixed with guacamole, as if we are as helpless as these participants to understand the complexities of their time and age, and the modern choreography dance breaks do little to deepen our engagement and understanding. It’s as if Evans wants to throw so much inventiveness at as to keep us feeling like this is something deeper and more profound than it is, as the insights don’t really add up to a heightened pile of books.
The play, written by an established playwright, feeling unfocused, like a young person’s attempt for understanding in the modern digital world. It sadly fails to engage, wrestling with the hyper-intellectual critique of privilege, and inauthentic friendship. I didn’t understand the impulses of Jill, portrayed by the talented Juliana Canfield (TFANA’s He Brought Her Heart…) and her attachment to the handsome, but horridly rude Milo played by the game Zane Pais (CSC’s Dead Poets Society), unless she is trying to inform us of the superficiality and the blindness of this generation. Her character, even with the kind and warm connection she attempts to have with the troubled and complex Marie, is given little to engage nor connect clearly with, beyond Milo’s monied charm and good looks. Keith, tightly portrayed by Christian Strange (Alex Dinelaris’ “In This, Our Time“) climbs around on the books showing his desperation, while never really giving us much of a view inside. It’s a shame, but the fault lies not with the actors, as they are trying to give us a gentle tragedy filled with sweet reveals and truthful reactions, but with the context and the interactive exchanges. It all rings false, with the beats and the impulses firing up and falling down, as these five don’t really feel like friends, or as people who know, or even like, one another deeply. They feel more like random constructs fulfilling quotas on qualities and types. It’s a gathering I would have hated to be stuck in, and never would have stayed beyond the first drink, let alone the descriptions of their defining moments in life and legend as they left late into the night.
But on a thoughtfully esoterically pilled set by scenic designer Brett J. Banakis (Broadway’s The Cher Show), with strong costuming by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene (Public’s Wild Goose Dreams), telling lighting by Masha Tsimring (PH’s Noura), solid sound by Lee Kinney (Signature’s Thom Pain…), and pulse enlivening original music by Daniel Kluger (PH’s I Was Most Alive…), the Sunday evening book club only finds its compelling lost ingredient after the kids run off into the night. It’s in Bill’s return, where the defining moment of Sunday finally arrives and saves the piece from destruction. In what is described as the most boring man around, Jones’ Bill gives us shades of what truly is missing in the morality of those twenty-somethings hearts. Even in the clumsiness of the back and forth dialogue with Marie, an essence of authenticity is finally felt; fleeting, but true. The beats of interconnection don’t solve the dilemma, but they at least make us sit up and take notice.
Over and up at Playwrights Horizons, another new play, Heroes of the Fourth Turning by playwright Will Arbery (Piano, Evanston Salt Costs Climbing), finds a clearer task in its straightforwardness, and an inner courage beyond just trying to be modern and unique. It’s a quick blast into a brutal beginning that shapes our perspective on these folks, courtesy of the finely focused Justin, directly portrayed by Jeb Kreager (LCT/Broadway’s Oslo). The play in its simplicity, solidly sets forth an agenda, giving us a much needed view into the backyard dynamics of the other side, perfectly designed by the talented Laura Jellinek (PH’s A Life), with strong subtle lighting by Isabella Byrd (PH’s The Thanksgiving Play), exacting costuming by Sarafina Bush (Greenwich House’s Broadway Bounty Hunter), and startling sound by Justin Ellington (LCT’s The Rolling Stone). Arbery has stated in an interview, “People say, who are these people that voted for Trump?” and in Heroes… we are given the difficult opportunity to join a few of them for a late night gathering to listen in as they discuss the religious war that is coming, and to try to understand the expanse of the grateful acre under their feet. It’s jaw-dropping-ly difficult and ear crushingly obscure, but it works, leading us to the roots of a Christian republic and mindset that truly believes in the “natural good” that should be operating within our society.
Set in a small Wyoming town on August 19, 2017, the former fellow students of a right wing university gather to celebrate the naming of its new president, but its noteworthy to realize, as we are told, that this is also the day that Stephen Bannon, chief strategist for the Orange Monster, is fired (although Bannon insists that the parting of ways was his idea). It is also known and reported that he will return to Breitbart News, and begin his ramped up war against all those who oppose Trump, and that battle cry is regurgitated here clearly and defiantly in this peaceful backyard by a few of his devoted followers.
Once again, we find ourselves joining in with a pack of entangled souls at a party that I wouldn’t want to be at, but as directed with a sharp focus and deliberate action by Danya Taymor (Vineyard/TNG’s “Daddy”), the debate is one that pulls us in, even when the ideas and slogans turn our collective “nice young liberal” stomachs inside out. Don’t start with all that empathy, demands the impassioned and iconoclastic Teresa, played to prickly perfection by Zoë Winters (Public’s White Noise). We can find poetry in her fiery offensive war talk to the messy easily-influenced Kevin, portrayed drunkenly by the creative John Zdrojeski (13th Street’s Before We’re Gone) but it leaves a harsh aftertaste. Teresa’s fast-talking proposal of leveling up and prepping for battle rings solidly true, frighteningly so, as it is not new to our ears. We watch, uncomfortably, as it is easily digested by the weak-minded and confused Justin, a “future-priest type who always wants a girlfriend and doesn’t know quite how to be, but is so sincere and so striving“. It’s a compelling litany of information, ringing loud and clear, focusing completely on the crisis that she believes is ahead, while failing to give any weight to the artist at hand.
These are the people, most clearly, who have given rise to the current abomination administration, and it’s uncomfortable to watch, even when given the softer voice of suffering Emily, beautifully organized by Julia McDermott (Druid’s Epiphany). She is the pained daughter of the heavyweight leader, Gina, dynamically embodied by the fantastic Michele Pawk (Broadway’s Cabaret, PH’s A Small Fire) who everyone waits to see. The clash of ideals and disappointments finally arrive, but in unexpected ways and means, forcibly and diametrically giving us conflicting ideas existing in the same wide open space. At first it’s Emily’s openness being slapped aside by Teresa’s sure-footedness, but the real battle is within former teacher Gina and past student Teresa. This is where the backyard battle truly heats up in a way that is most thrilling to watch, even though there isn’t a side I’m willing to sit on, as both are problematic to my liberal Canadian heart.
Teresa embodies the strident believer who digs in deep to “The Fourth Turning“, a pop history book by William Straus and Neil Howe that was published in 1997, that describes the generational cycle of destruction and reconstruction. It informs her, almost as clearly as the lives of the liberals she studies, and lives among in Brooklyn, of her true righteousness and stance against liberalism. She’s entrenched in this structural view, one that a New York Times article wrote about and that Steve Bannon is obsessed with. She is quick to lay claim to the ideas it fosters, spouting them off as if they were channelled through her from God, including the idea of a war that we are in the midst of. She’s intent on judging anyone who doesn’t want to join the battle cry, especially people like Emily’s friend who works for Planned Parenthood, in a way that is both provocative but recognizable, while also being confident in her direction to stand up to the powerful Gina and the serious Catholic intellectuals that she represents, who think about liberty in a society that answers to its people and honoring the promise of freedom in America as ordained by God.
The broken generator sounds its own earth shattering conclusion, as we watch the forces stagger off into the night. Kevin speaks of a dream in the mountain that is mysterious and beautiful. Emily, inexplicably being triggered by her buddy Justin, stands up towards a different state of being. It’s all powerful and ugly, joyfully harsh and dynamic, giving words to those generally ignored in the New York theater world, with little to balance our liberal beliefs on. As Asbery comments: “Your heart screams at the people you love sometimes. It rages against them And then you come back to them, and you love them, and you move forward.” This is a telling statement, and in Emily, somewhere, there is that similar testament to love, faith, and suffering, one that rang far more true and clear in the hearts of Heroes… than it did in the five twenty-something brats discussing self-pity and depressive thoughts during Sunday night book club. It was quite the Saturday.
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