There would be good reason to see A Bright Room Called Day (through November 6) even if Elemental Theatre hadnít done a good job of it. As Tony Kushner has demonstrated before, if ideas are vividly theatricalized, they donít have to come across like essays recited at lecterns.
Nevertheless, the 1985 play is a sprawling harangue of a work, however articulate. (Despite its ambitious flaws, Oskar Eustis was sufficiently impressed back then to commission Kushner to write what became Angels in America for his Eureka Theatre in San Francisco.)
We are transported back to the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933, where we follow the fate of a group of friends. One by one they go into hiding as Germany lets Hitler and his thugs take over. By the end, only the hostess of this circle is left, cowering in the apartment she refused to give up and sensibly flee. (This is such a play for rent-controlled New Yorkers.) Connecting this to today is East Village Anarcho-Punk Zillah Katz (Nehassaiu deGannes), who is researching the period and stridently finding parallels with President Reagan and his hard-hearted social agenda. (Encouraged by Kushnerís introduction to the play, this production has added a line about President Bushís tardy reaction to the Gulf floods to update the theme of indifference to suffering.)
But we mainly are in the lace and tasseled-lamp apartment of actress Agnes Eggling (DíArcy Dersham). The diverse backgrounds and temperaments of the friends assemble into a group portrait of Weimar Germany. Eye-patched cinematographer Vealtninc Husz (Alexander Platt) was wounded in World War I and has already fled his native Hungary and Russia. Gregor Bazwald (David Rabinow) is not only a mascara-sporting homosexual but also works for the Berlin Institute for Human Sexuality. Paulinka Erdnuss (Tanya Anderson), a low-wattage film star, is religiously opportunistic ó a Communist for two weeks to get a film job ó and is a likely recruit for a Third Reich film industry. Annabella Gotchling (Jen Swain) is a graphic designer of Communist posters and, as the self-described most intelligent of the group, is its conscience.
Zillah, the observer from 50 years later, declares that whatís needed in trying times is "not caution or circumspection but moral exuberance. Overstatement is your friend: use it." These are the marching orders that Kushner apparently gave to himself as well, shrilly treatise-thumping like a preacher who found Karl Marx. In Germany in the politically polarized early 1930s, before Stalinís excesses were widely known, being a Red was a live option, as some of these friends found. We get large heapings of dialectic as well as dialogue, but Kushner is hip to the farcical self-delusion of the timeís party-line dancers. He has a couple of kindly KPD functionaries pleasantly reprimand Agnes for prematurely calling for revolution in a puppet play she staged. The Party also takes a slapstick upside the head for not aligning with the Social Democrats to keep Hitler from power.
Yes, yes, comparing contemporary politics to Nazism always flirts with trivializing both eras, however horrendous the former. Ironically, the playwright finesses that problem of exaggeration by the above-mentioned policy of overstatement. The ever-hyper Zillah is our proxy, hysterical color commentator to this grim, unfolding history-as-contact-sport. Itís amusingly humbling to be reprimanded by a street-corner haranguer as the question of the source and responsibility for evil gets examined ó even the Devil (Matthew Korahais) gets a scene. Itís good that Zillah is a screamer. To be reminded by someone dignified that we must pipe up as citizens would be too much like being lectured at by Mommy. (Zillah fires off daily missives to "the Undersecretary of Pernicious Behavior" and the like in Washington, which must have been much like Kushner felt in the early í80s writing unproduced plays.)
About half of the cast is Actorsí Equity, so the acting tends to be on the mark, bolstered by the direction of Peter Sampieri, who has impressed us at Trinity Rep (Wit). Dersham as Agnes has the most difficult job and traverses quite well the arc toward hysterical moral minimalism (sheltering a fugitive for a single night). Kelly Sleigh adds quirky backbone to the imaginary character of Die Alte, "the Old One" who haunts Zillahís dreams, the only unsmiling bystander not saluting in an old photograph of a Nazi parade.
A Bright Room Called Day is not the subtlest play ever written. But itís encouraging to be reminded that our playwrights can step in when our politicians and statesmen are of no help at all.
Issue Date: November 4 - 10, 2005
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