The Review: Public Theater’s A Bright Room Called Day
With the blast of a saxophone, playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) transports us back to the days leading up to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, circa 1932, as well as, oddly enough, the year 1985 when Ronald Reagan was the President, and a young Kushner was a directing student at NYU writing his first play. Randomly named, it was mounted in an Off-Off-Broadway house with a young company called Heat & Light, and subsequently produced by the Public in 1991. It was not well received, to say the least. Having myself just came back from a trip to Berlin, the retooling felt like a perfectly timed return and reexamination. It encapsulated the history of that time and place, and detailed the parallels between Hitler’s Germany and the modern era American dream (or nightmare, if you’re not into sarcasm). Directed with wit and style by Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of The Public Theater who had previously directed the first professional production back in 1987 at the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, A Bright Room Called Day shimmers in bohemian German garb and progressive politics. It intrigues and illuminates a slice of history that is probably more relevant now than when it was first produced. Unfortunately for all, it is just as perplexing, even as we happily join in with Fascist history in the making.
Living out her life, confused but intrigued by the rampant politics surrounding her, the mildly successful actress, Agnes Eggling, portrayed affectionately by Nikki M. James (Public’s Julius Caesar) seems at a loss as to where she wants to throw her hat, or at least with how much force and vigor. Her friend, if that is the right word for Annabella Gotchling, solidly portrayed by Linda Emond (CSC’s The Resistible Rise…), is a humorless renegade with a head strong passion for Communism. She demands and lectures with an intelligent force that is pure Kushner at his most heavy. Swinging far in the other direction is the well-known successful narcissist actress Paulinka Erdnuss, deliciously played by Grace Gummer (2ST’s Mary Page Marlowe), who thinks more about the spotlight than the sermon; and a superficial gay intentionalist Gregor Bazwald, dynamically portrayed with flourish by Michael Urie (2ST/Broadway’s Torch Song), who like so many in our time, has the outspoken passion, but not the bravery and conviction to step outside their personal comfort zone. Agnes’ one-eyed boyfriend, the radical Vealtninc Husz, played passively by Michael Esper (NYTW’s Lazarus) only sheds more light on her stuck bewilderment at being radically involved, even with the two arguing communist allies, Rosa Malek, portrayed strongly by Nadine Malouf (Huntington’s Yerma), and Emil Traum, portrayed forcibly by Max Woertendyke (Broadway’s A View From the Bridge) standing before her and asking for more.
History is displayed with precision, thanks to the fine work by projection designer Lucy MacKinnon (Public’s White Noise), taking us moment by moment through a time that chilling feels current. Hitler rises up, grabbing hold of power and systematically burns down all of the opposition. It’s hard not to feel the impeachment chill. And if that point doesn’t settle onto your skin fast enough, Kushner has given us the confusing powerhouse named Zillah, aggressively portrayed by the beautifully voiced Crystal Lucas-Perry (Public’s Ain’t No Mo’) to point out the parallels with load mouthed force. Her reference is to the Reagan years, which, although is fascinating in its determination, pales in comparison to what is happening now in our modern Orange Monster world. And if that point doesn’t settle onto your skin fast enough, Kushner has come himself, in the form of Xillah, interestingly portrayed by Jonathan Hadary (Public’s Coriolanus) to jam the formulation into our minds and souls. In some way it captivates, having a Kushner stand-in proclaim directly about his play: “it doesn’t entirely work“, with Zillah, asking him the question we are all thinking in that moment, “are you here to fix it?“, with the secondary question floating in the back of my brain, “is that entirely possible?”
The Public Theater is certainly giving this Bright Room every opportunity to shine brightly with this Eustis-lead production. The scenic design by David Rockwell (Broadway’s Tootsie) is of the highest caliber, along with detailed costuming by Susan Hilferty (Public’s Fire in Dreamland) & Sarita Fellows (Cherry Lane’s Original Sound), stellar lighting by John Torres (Public’s Twelfth Night), and solid sound design by Bray Poor (Public’s Office Hour), but the overall structure still wobbles and creaks under the weight of lofty intentions. Estelle Parsons (Broadway’s August: Osage County) serves up an astounding portrayal of a ghostly nightmare named Die Ãlte, who slides in from a window and takes over the space with a dynamic intensity,. Her delivery renders us speechless, equal to the well played Mark Margolis (Public’s My Uncle Sam) as the devilish Gottfried Swetts, firing up the room with devilish dramatic tension. But does it all pull together and add up to more than a number of dynamic lectures and symbols?
The parallels are clear, and the prognosis dire, making us squirm wondering how much of this tale will directly rise up within our current situation. The operational interrupter and the creator/abandoner do little to make us trust in the importance of this play. They squabble and try to interject, but to little affect. The play still confuses, and forgets itself as it bleeds across the borders of time. “Do you believe in the Devil?” and this newly crafted rendition of a brilliant young playwright’s first attempt? Or should Kushner admit defeat when defeated. His language still resonates outward with intelligence and history, reminding me of the gorgeously created Bolshevik that magnificently encapsulates so much in Kushner’s epic masterpiece, Angels in America. His thought process feels as powerful and determined as his later works of art, but this one still stumbles and stays a bit further afield, beyond this young man’s passionate grasp.
History tells us over and over to act, but even as they wheel out a piano and sing a song to shake things up (most harmoniously), the minority of the players find that in A Bright Room Called Day, they just can’t find the power to fire and kill, for fear of dying themselves. The destruction of a community as the fascist machine solidifies is a current nightmare of not doing, or not doing enough. I cross my fingers for this modern day Impeachment world, although my hope that the souls who are acting right now have a better more powerful impact than the characters that inhabit this play. “WTF are we going to do?“, they ask; a question that reverberates in my head all day long as we watch with baited breath what is happening in real time around us, wondering if the lies will win at the end of the day, or will the truth finally be listened to and embraced. History teaches, but are we listening and willing to act.