“Power to the People”
As I’ve previously noted, Days of Rage, Steven Levenson’s (Dear Evan Hansen) play about a cell of antiwar radicals in 1969, is the third leg in the accidental trilogy of thematically related plays about late 60s political activism I viewed this week. The first, Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade, is a documentary-style biodrama about Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign; the second, Gloria: A Life, about feminist icon Gloria Steinem, is also a biographical docudrama; while Days of Rage, briskly staged by Trip Cullman, is a conventional play about fictional characters within the very real circumstances of contemporary activity.Set in October 1969, the year of Woodstock and the My Lai massacre, it introduces three college-age militants, a man, Spence (Mike Faist). and two women, Jenny (Lauren Patten) and Quinn (Odessa Young), living together in a ramshackle house in an upstate New York college town. Gritty, grungy, and graffiti-covered, with fading old wallpaper, Louisa Thompson’s realistically detailed dollhouse set—beautifully lit by Tyler Micoleau—shows two upstairs bedrooms, and a downstairs living room, decorated with a Vietcong flag. Exterior scenes are played in front of the big set, which rolls forward for more intimate views.
The inhabitants are struggling to pay their expenses while also trying to raise money for what they believe will be a massive protest opposing war, racism, and imperialism, “In solidarity with the Chicago 8” (a.k.a. the Chicago 7). Midway through, their cell is increased in the person of the wealthy, gun-toting Peggy (Tavi Gevinson), who brings to mind Patty Hearst. Another perspective is provided by Hal (J. Alphonse J. Nicholson), the well-dressed (by Paloma Young)—apart from his cuffs being a bit too short—black man who works at Sears and whose brother is serving in Vietnam.
Days of Rage takes its name from the Chicago protests that followed soon after the play proper concludes (there’s an arguably unnecessary epilogue). Levenson mixes history with fiction, and not everything you might expect is reported. SDS, PLP, and the Black Panthers are mentioned, for example, but not the Weathermen. The playwright’s intention is mainly to dramatize the behavior, thoughts, and interactions of young people caught up in the ferocity of their political goals.
Their leftwing ideology has driven them to believe only a revolution to overthrow the government can solve the nation’s problems. This was when so many Americans, usually from the lower part of the socio-economic scale, were being shipped off to fight what vast swaths of their contemporaries believed an unjust war.
So, to the occasional rock music constituting Darron L West’s period-setting sound score, we have these pot-smoking kids citing Lenin and Engels as they try to live “collectively” by abandoning patriarchal structures, dismissing monogamous sexual relationships, and acting only when everyone consents, as per discussions and votes. Anyone who breaks the party line must be subjected to corrective instruction.
A considerable amount of comedy, of course, emerges from the difficulty these middle-class young people face in giving up their individualism (and jealousies) in the interests of the commune. But comedy can quickly turn serious, given the potential danger of work in which every newcomer, no matter how seemingly benign, represents a threat. Paranoia is practically a state of being.
I was a young professor at the time but, aside from when my younger brother was arrested at an SDS sit-in, was too preoccupied with my family and career to indulge in activism. Watching the kids in Days of Rage behave as naively as they do, regardless of the sincerity of their beliefs, made me feel that Levenson, too young to have been around in 1969, had conjured up an ersatz, even tongue-in-cheek, vision of clueless, counter-cultural revolutionaries.
My plus-one, though, someone I’ve known since our college days, had a considerably different take. He’s a playwright-director (and former critic) with left-wing positions he continues to express, and was himself an activist who lived communally, much like the characters in the play. His many contributions included raising money for the Panthers and participation in mass demonstrations. (He was connected to groups like the Living Theatre.)
After the play, when I hinted at my hesitations regarding the veracity of what we’d seen, he couldn’t refrain from an emotional outpouring of how precisely accurate (regardless of this or that fact) everything in it is.
This morning, on the phone, he was even more animated, talking about how each character was distinct and like someone he’d known; how the dialogue perfectly mirrored the things people said; how the issues discussed were like what he and his friends talked about; how the characters’ sexual and other personal behavior reminded him of what he’d experienced, and so on. In the face of this onslaught from such a knowledgeable witness I was forced to submit.
I enjoyed Days of Rage and thought it generally well performed but still had several reservations. Those, however, have now been consigned to the dustbin of my fading memory and I sign off by recommending the play via the fervent acclimation of my friend, still radical after all these years.
Second Stage/Tony Kiser Theatre
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through November 25