Tony Kushner, of course, is mainly known for Angels in America, his epochal, two-part play inspired by the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. But before Angels in America made Kushner a playwriting icon there was A Bright Room Called Day, his first play, fueled by his conviction that Ronald Reagan’s presidency was somehow comparable to the rise of fascism in Germany under Adolf Hitler.
Following the outcome of the 2016 election, with the ascension of a president who makes Reagan look like FDR, it was only natural that someone would present a major revival of a play equating Trump with Hitler, and that’s what the Public has again provided, with Eustis (who gave us a Julius Caesar with the title role resembling our Dear Leader) once more at the director’s helm.
The dramatist has done some heavy lifting to bring the material up to date, and Kushner being Kushner, there’s much to admire and ponder. Speaking of pondering, though, much of A Bright Room Called Day’s two hours and 45 minutes is nearly as ponderous as the six and a half required to sit through Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance on Broadway.
|Crystal Lucas-Perry, Jonathan Hadary.|
I never saw the play’s first version but the chief revision appears to be the addition of a new character—an avatar of Kushner himself—called Xillah (Jonathan Hadary, humorously kvetchy), to engage in interstitial discourse with a woman named Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry, fiery), originally a Jewish woman from Long Island but now played by a black actress. Xillah and Zillah are fourth wall-breaking characters who periodically interrupt the episodic plot, which focuses on the thoughts and actions of a group of leftist friends in Berlin in 1932-1933.
Set in the high-walled, tastefully shabby apartment (smartly designed by David Rockwell and lit by John Torres) of actress Agnes Eggling (Nikki M. James, intense but unconvincing), the play expresses the relative commitments of each character to the constantly shifting dictates of Communist Party ideology and their response to the nation’s dangerously rightward shift.
As the plot proceeds, projections inform us of specific political events, among them the crumbling of the Weimar Republic as the Nazis gain power, the burning of the Reichstag, Hitler’s election, the violence toward the left, the creation of the Dachau concentration camp, and so on. With the pressure mounting, the friends must decide whether to stay or flee. Ultimately, it’s implied that we, the audience, face similar dangers, and that we must not repeat the feckless inaction of the Germans but take measures to prevent the destruction of liberalism from happening here.
Agnes’s friends—suitably garbed by Susan Hilferty and Sarita Fellows—are Paulinka Erdnuss (Grace Gummer, too shrill), a fashionably accessorized, opium-puffing actress; Vealtninc Husz (Michael Esper, heavily accented), a passionate, bearded, Hungarian filmmaker who lost an eye in a 1919 communist uprising; Annabella Gotchling (Linda Emond, truthful), a graphic designer; and Gregor Bazwald (Michael Urie, mannered but persuasive), called Baz, an openly gay man in a homophobic world, employed at the Institute for Human Sexuality. Emil Traum (Max Woertendyke) and Rosa Malek (Nadine Malouf) are CP functionaries with differing views on party positions.
|Max Woertendyke, Nadine Malouf.|
These realistic persons are countered by an aged, disheveled, nightgown-wearing crone called the Älte (Estelle Parsons, at 92 still a powerful presence)—the Elder—a mysterious, poetry-spouting figure who enters through a window in search of food. We also meet Gottfried Swetts (Mark Margolis, rhetorically strong), summoned by Husz. A businessman from Hamburg, he’s really the devil, offering a powerful diatribe boasting of his resurgent powers as the fires of hell rise up behind him.
And then there are the metatheatrical presences of Xillah and Zillah, who periodically enter to argue about not only politics and morality but to comment on Kushner’s play, including his revisions, with commentary even extending to apologies for its length and loquacity. At one point, Xillah takes up time with an anecdote about how the play got its unusual name.
|Jonathan Hadary, Nikki M. James, Crystal Lucas-Perry.|
So, the play is now not only a warning about what Kushner perceives to be our current flirtation with fascist leadership but about his own negative evaluation of the play’s first incarnation. Cute? Momentarily. Necessary? Hell, no. Speaking of irrelevancies, should I mention that Zillah opens act two singing “Memories of You” while Xillah accompanies her? Or how about . . .
|Michael Urie, Nikki M. James.|
For all the suspense implicit in the situation of 1930s German leftists being threatened by a frighteningly oppressive regime, Kushner’s play is a garrulous discussion drama that reads better than it plays. The ideas may be stimulating but, even with considerable use of colloquial language, the dialogue is frequently prolix and, at first hearing, not always easy to follow. Sturm und drang arguments fill the air but the actors, many among New York’s best, rarely seem more than mouthpieces for Kushner’s thoughts. They display high-quality technical skills and lots of emotion but, with one or two exceptions, create people we can neither believe in or care for.
|Nikki M. James, Michael Esper.|
For many, the opportunity to hear Donald Trump trashed in Kushner’s rich invective will prove satisfying enough for them to remain awake during this linguistically dazzling but often-soporific exercise. On the other hand, such abuse has become so endemic in the op-eds, social media outlets, and late-night monologues that, its point made, it’s quickly blunted.
While it’s easy to share the author’s frustrated rage—why else so many current shows shooting poisoned darts at POTUS—A Bright Room Called Day, for all its intrinsic historical interest, places too much emphasis on didactic polemics (with which I happen to agree) and not enough on drama to brighten one's day.
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St., NYC
Through December 8