Tony Kushner has taken the first play he wrote, which traced the rise of Nazism in Germany as a cri de coeur and a call to arms against what was happening to America during the Reagan era, and reworked it 34 years later for the Trump era – or, anyway, in the Trump era.
“A Bright Room Called Day” never really worked – as the playwright now acknowledges in the play itself. He has turned himself into a character. That meta-theatrical addition is one of the significant changes in a starry production at the Public Theater of this passionate and provocative play, but it in no way feels fixed. It is sprawling, awkwardly talky, and obvious — and now, also self-indulgent.
It might have been a mistake for Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, who directed the play 32 years ago, to take the helm again. It’s hard to fault the design or the performances, but the show might have benefited from a director with less emotional investment in the script.
Still, “A Bright Room Called Day” also offers a glimpse into Kushner’s high-wire act of intellectual theatricality that makes his later plays so thrilling. There are some intriguing characters and some fascinating facts in the historical timeline. Besides, who else is so loudly sounding the alarm?
“Do you feel… safe”? Baz (Michael Urie) asks Agnes (Nikki M. James) in the first scene of the play.
“We live in Berlin. It’s 1932. I feel relatively safe,” Agnes, an actress, replies. It is New Year’s Day 1932, as we’re told in the first of three hours worth of slide projections that announce the date, the news, the political situation before each scene, as we follow Agnes and her artistic and political friends over the next two years. We witness the characters’ attitudes towards, reactions to, and effects from, Hitler’s rise to power, as (according to one of the last slides) “The Transition to Fascism Gathers Incredible Speed.”
Baz, a witty “Sunday anarchist” and homosexual who is on the staff of the Institute of Human Sexuality, early on rejects his leftist friends’ faith in the German proletariat: “The fascists don’t try to make sense…Hitler simply offers a lot of very confused and terrified and constipated people precisely what they want, an exhalation, a purgation, catharsis….They’re in love with the shine on his boots.”
Michael Esper portays Agnes’ lover Husz, who is a Hungarian-born filmmaker and former Trotskyite; he lost an eye fighting for the revolution, and has now turned cynical. “A whole generation of washouts,” he says. “History says stand up, and we totter and collapse, weeping, moved, but not sufficient.”
Linda Emond is Annabella Gotchling, a committed leftist who has contempt for her friends’ “elegant despair. You pretend to be progressive but actually progress distresses you. It’s untidy, upsetting.”
Grace Gummer plays Paulinka, one of the few friends of Agnes who doesn’t speak in pronouncements. She is a vain actress who smokes opium and goes to a Jewish psychoanalyst, and, we sense from the start, will go where the wind blows.
There are others: Malek and Traum are a pair of argumentative Communist Party functionaries who seem to exist in the play for two reasons – to provide something close to comic relief, and to illustrate how the ridiculous rigidity of CP ideology prevented their forming a ruling coalition in Parliament with the Socialists, thus paving the way for Hitler’s climb.
If “A Bright Room Called Day” contained only these scenes, theatergoers might compare it to Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” or any number of plays by Brecht (who is a clear influence.) But there are four other characters. Estelle Parsons portrays somebody named Die Alte, who is evidently a ghost haunting Agnes’ apartment and is always hungry: A victim of the post World War I hardship, or an early victim of Nazism? Unclear. Mark Margolis portrays the Devil – the less said about this nod to Faust, the better.
These were both in the original script, as was a character named Zillah, who was initially a Jew from Great Neck living in 1985 (portrayed in the 1991 revival at the Public by the comic actress Reno), the device by which the playwright established parallels between Hitler’s Germany and Reagan’s America. Now the black actress Crystal Lucas-Perry portrays Zillah, and she spends much of her time arguing with a new character named Xillah, portrayed by Jonathan Hadary, an unmistakable stand-in for Kushner himself. Xillah’s bouts of self-doubt and political rants are delivered in dangerously high doses — Xillah might remind you of the indecisive, endlessly talkative character Louis Ironson from “Angels in America” without the charm. The rants are largely invective rather than specific accusations or analysis about the current administration. Even some of the interaction between Zillan and Xillah is inventive and amusing, one of the bottom-line questions Xillah (Kushner) asks himself, and the audience, is a despairing one: What good can theater (this show) do to change the world (the U.S. under Trump?)
“It’s his first play, this play. It’s never worked,” Zillah tells us.
“Some of it worked,” says Xillah, defensively. But yes, he tells us, no professional theaters had any interest in reviving it, until “BAM” the 2016 election: “Things are so bad people want to do this play!”
A Bright Room Called Day
Written by Tony Kushner. Directed by Oskar Eustis
scenic design by David Rockwell; co-costume design by Susan
Hilferty and Sarita Fellows; lighting design by John Torres; sound design by Bray Poor; projection design by Lucy
Mackinnon; hair, wig, and makeup design by Tom Watson; and fight direction by Thomas Schall.
Cast: Linda Emond (Annabella Gotchling), Michael Esper (Vealtninc Husz), Grace Gummer (Paulinka Erdnuss), Jonathan Hadary (Xillah), Nikki M. James (Agnes Eggling), Crystal Lucas-Perry (Zillah), Nadine Malouf (Rosa Malek), Mark Margolis (Gottfried Swetts), Estelle Parsons (Die Älte), Michael Urie (Gregor Bazwald), and Max Woertendyke (Emil Traum).
Running time: Three hours including one intermission
Tickets: $50 to $150
A Bright Room Called Day is on stage through December 15, 2019