Friday, October 11, 2019

88 (2019-2020): Review: HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING (2019-2020)

“Bursting Bubbles” 

Like its title, Will Arbery’s logorrheic, politically provocative Heroes of the Fourth Turning, for much of its intermissionless two hours at Playwrights Horizons, is dramatically and visually murky.

After Justin Ellington’s eerie preshow music recedes, the play begins in silence and darkness, which director Danya Taymor extends as long as she can until—bang!—the sound and flash of a gunshot. After another few seconds, a hint of light allows us to see a man, Justin (Jeb Kreager, convincingly honest), who enters, lays out a plastic cloth on his back porch, goes off, and returns carrying a dead doe. He places it on the cloth, then, tremulously, prepares to gut it. Blackout. 
John Zdrojeski, Julie McDermott. All photos: Joan Marcus.
Apart from how, in such darkness anyone could down a deer, this ritualistic prologue, soon followed by the main action, introduces us to an unusual, disturbing, rhetorically dense, only fitfully engaging drama. In it, we meet five, observant, well-educated Catholics, each on a different stratum of right-wing political belief, from moderate to reactionary. The play twists around the relationship between their personal issues and a number of theological, philosophical, and political ones.
Jeb Kreager, Julie McDermott. 
While some liberal viewers may see their bubbles bursting, others will likely react by building stronger ones. Arbery seeks to be impartial in presenting his characters’ points of view but isn’t entirely able to disguise his own liberalism, which evolved, ironically, from a background like that shown in his play. He even wonders, though, whether we might not actually end up loving his characters. Nothing to fear from this reviewer on that front.
John Zdrojeski, Jeb Kreager, Zoë Winters.
It’s a play larded with ideas associated with philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Arendt, and Heidigger, and Catholic theologians like Walter Brueggemann, whose names get dropped. There are also concepts like “the scandal of particularity,”the Benedict Option,” and the eponymous, generational theory of “the fourth turning.” Much of this comes across the footlights in rapid, well-enunciated, densely worded dialogue that, if you’re not up on such cogitations, may zip in one ear and out the other.
John Zdrojeski, Zoë Winters, Jeb Kreager, Michelle Pawk, Julia McDermott.
Arbery helps make the material a bit more accessible by expressing it through earthy characters who drink heavily, do drugs, use profanity, and watch “Portlandia.” Most of them, wrapped up in their existential angst, are so generally unappealing that the murk nonetheless persists.
John Zdrojeski, Zoë Winters, Jeb Kreager, Julia McDermott.
The introduction of symbolic elements only deepens the intellectual ambiguity. We’re required to consider things like Justin’s persistent, Lady Macbeth-like attempt to clean a spot of doe’s blood from his porch; the oft-referred to imminence of a solar eclipse; a loud, screeching noise, blamed on a faulty generator, that keeps interrupting the action; gunfire heard in the distance; references to a coming war, and so on. There are also several metaphorical monologues that require sussing out, including an allegorical children’s story about “a grateful acre,” a dream memory, and a curse-filled explosion of fury from the least likely source.
Jeb Kreager, John Zdrojeski,  Zoë Winters.
The occasion for the play’s moral, political, theological, philosophical, and emotional arguments is the gathering for a party to celebrate the accession of Gina (Michelle Pawk, impressively persuasive) to the presidency of Transfiguration College of Wyoming, a small Catholic college with a surprisingly liberal arts curriculum, in a sparsely populated area of Wyoming. (Arbery’s parents teach at such a school.)  

The action transpires in August 2017, a week after the Charlottesville riot, under the stars in a backyard designed by Laura Jellinek, with much of it lost in Isabella Byrd’s low-intensity lighting. The property belongs to Justin, 38, a tattooed, pistol-packing, Marine vet, and marksman with spiritual conflicts and anti-liberal principles, in whose house (at stage left, barely visible from my aisle seat) the party is being hosted.
John Zdrojeski, Michelle Pawk, Jeb Kreager.
Two of the guests are Justin’s decade-younger, former classmates at TCW. One is the self-doubting, heavy-drinking, Internet-addicted (porn, one assumes), religiously confused Kevin (John Zdrojeski, overacting), something of the group jerk. The other is Teresa (Zoë Winters, sharp as a tack), the ultra-articulate, Trump-supporting, coolly-dressed beauty (costumes by Sarafina Bush), who lives in a liberal Brooklyn enclave, thereby heightening her reactionary ideals.
Michelle Pawk, John Zdrojeski, Zoë Winters.
The other group member, who went to college elsewhere, is Emily (Julia McDermott, a ticking bomb), Gina’s seemingly saintly daughter, constantly seeking the natural good in other people while suffering the pain (more symbolism) of Lyme disease.
John Zdrojeski, Julia McDermott.
It’s the brainy Teresa’s hard-right positions—first suggested in her fiery response to the theologically troubled Kevin’s question, “Why the heck do we have to love the Virgin Mary?” when she (without saying any names) impugns Hillary Clinton—that gets the play’s political ball rolling.
Zoë Winters, Jeb Kreager, Julia Mcdermott.
There are various personal relationship issues involving love and sex among the four one-time buddies, but, for all the histrionic sturm und drang they spark, they’re too boringly ordinary to compete with the political arguments—from abortion and Planned Parenthood to empathy to Steve Bannon to Donald Trump to LGBT (including pronouns) to racism to guns to white suppression—they get into.
Zoë Winters, Michelle Pawk.
Although Emily takes issue with Teresa’s absolutism concerning the evil of abortion supporters, the discourse doesn’t really take off until the play’s second half, when Gina, Justin, Teresa, and Kevin’s beloved teacher, now the college president, arrives. A member of the ultraconservative John Birch Society, and a one-time supporter of right winger Pat Buchanan, she nonetheless comes off, like Emily, as unexpectedly openminded, bashing Trump and feistily debating Teresa’s radical ideas.
Jeb Kreager, Julie McDermott.
In his program note, Arbery likens his play to a fugue, both in that word’s musical meaning and its psychological one. I won’t repeat the definitions he provides but will instead note that fugue, schmugue, Heroes of the Fourth Estate interested me, not because it’s a good play (which I question) but because—despite its intellectual diversions (better on the page than the stage)—it presents enough real-world subject matter to compel at least temporary attention. Its just too bad we have to wander in the weeds before getting to the good stuff.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning
Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Extended through November 17