‘A Bright Room Called Day’
Before there was an angry angel shattering through a ceiling, there was hell and a very jaded devil. And the devil, just like the angel, sure knew how to make an entrance.
This is what the playwright Tony Kushner imagined in A Bright Room Called Day (Anspacher/Public Theater, to Dec. 15), first performed in 1985, six years before the first chapter of Angels in America, Millennium Approaches, made its debut on stage.
Now, almost two years since Angels’ wonderful Broadway revival, Kushner’s first play returns, substantially rewritten to include the voice of the playwright, a fierce condemnation of the Trump presidency, and—in a deeper sense—an opportunity to put art and its purposes on trial.
A Bright Room Called Day convincingly links the eras of Hitler, Reagan, and Trump—even though the Reagan era has been mostly erased. Donald Trump’s ascendancy and what it means to Kushner is now integral to A Bright Room Called Day. If you hate Trump and all he and his administration stand for, and want to hear your feelings channeled loud from a stage, come to this play. It is directed by Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, who first directed it 32 years ago.
The play’s metafictional self-interrogation takes place alongside the main part of A Bright Room Called Day, which, like Angels, is about a group of people facing personal upheaval directly linked to a roiling political climate.
It is a more dour play than Angels—and more static, set in one apartment that goes from cozy to prison-like—and yet it also now has a lively wit throughout, particularly as it chews over its own mechanics and shortcomings, right down to how it got its name—via a cinematic misnaming of a kind.
David Rockwell’s beautifully designed flat, and the friends within its walls, stand above the streets of Berlin where the rise of Hitler in the Germany of 1932-33 unfolds. Captions flash on to the wall, retelling bite-sized moments in this period of German history—the awful descent that we know to be a prelude to even greater horrors.
In her boho apartment we meet Agnes (Nikki M. James), and her friends Husz (Michael Esper), Baz (Michael Urie), Paulinka (Grace Gummer), and Gotchling (Linda Emond). The play begins on a false note of hope and high spirits, a New Year’s Eve celebration in which Agnes says, “I feel relatively safe.”
She is toasted as “good-hearted and brave,” and the “immovable tenant of this small solid room.” It is a momentary bright spark in this debate-rich journey to darkness. With moving grace, James captures Agnes’ idealism diminish and dim to catatonic depression.
Baz is a gay man, airily joking about the sex he can have, until he realizes he must leave. Husz is up for the fight until he no longer can be, and then there is the astonishing Emond playing a stolid activist, whose determination and bravery has a committed, warm—and also sharp—clarity, even as the group and Agnes shatter in front of her. When “The Internationale” is sung by the group, it sounds less like a call to arms and more a mournful “Auld Lang Syne.”
Soon, the play is being interrupted. In the original production, Zillah (a playful and confrontational Crystal Lucas-Perry), was a voice from Reagan-era America, reaching back into the past, “to fret and fume ineffectually at the audience,” as she puts it in this new version of the play.
She has returned here, and now with Xillah (a wonderful Jonathan Hadary), a surrogate for playwright Kushner. Their names phonetically sound the same. They are echoes within the playwright’s mind and text in front of us. They fire off at each other about Zillah’s position within the play, and his job as a playwright. Zillah wants to chat to Agnes, to be able to reach through time and get her to leave the apartment.
The play has “never worked,” she tells us (these two characters not only break the fourth wall, they stomp merrily on its bricks, and bring levity too). “Some of it works,” the Kushner-not-Kushner responds.
Zillah points out the similarities between 1932 and 1985: “It’s 1985, and they’re cynically exploiting racism and economic anxiety and fear of change. It’s 1932, 1933 and they’re fanning immaturity into enraged recidivist reaction. It’s 1932, it’s 1985, and they’re propagating a politics of anti-politics, a hatred of the idea of government itself…”
Xillah tells her to just wait: 2019 has brought us Trump, and violations of democracy on an even darker, grander scale; and how the irrational right wing “live in dreams” and legislate and gaslight accordingly.
The play’s characters ask themselves what should they do. Agnes is initially ready to rabble-rouse and join the Communist Party, Xillah confesses that he has no idea what he meant by the “moral exuberance” of making art in response to a worsening climate.
Husz notes that the best of us are lacking, “the most decent, not decent enough. The kindest, too cruel, the most loving too full of hate, the wisest, too stupid, the fittest unfit to take up the burden of the time.” Zillah notes of the playwright that he is terrified of power, and Xillah agrees with this. His fury is as contained and trapped as poor Agnes is in her apartment. How should he give it air and purpose?
This is a play of ideas—and, yes, it is a play of ideas mostly preaching to the choir; a predominantly liberal audience at the Public Theater. That is not an argument against its existence, but in some way, just as Agnes is trapped and the playwright is trapped, and both are angry and feeling powerless by repressive forces much bigger than they are, so the audience sits there nodding and applauding and feeling terrible about it all in the four walls of this theater—its own cozy prison of self-confirming anger.
The play’s real challenge, and the challenge the playwright wants to meet, is how to get outside of yourself in these times. Its meditations are interrupted by the quite literally fiery, dramatic arrival of the devil (with china figurine dog with shining red eyes); Mark Margolis plays him as a careworn husk of vileness, whose powers and being are a dangerous mystery to the group.
The second act begins with a simple, sweet moment of peace. Xillah takes his seat at a piano and asks Zillah what’s the key? “Empathy,” she replies wrily, then takes a beat: “B flat,” before singing “Memories of You.”
The Agnes part of the play, set in 1933, becomes a series of losses, as the friends leave her to herself. They do what she should do; they get out, and sometimes it comes with compromises and fear and desperation. Agnes is left all alone bar the mysterious presence of Die Älte (a scarily vinegary Estelle Parsons), an old woman who keeps appearing in her kitchen.
The ghosts and time traveling may remind you of Angels, of course; for this playwright, the conversations about how democracy can segue to darkness and then dictatorship—and the deleterious effects on the people—are relevant in 1932, and 1985, and 2019.
But Kushner, we see, is also frustrated by how neutering writing can feel when a leader is doing so much bigger damage than art can counter. What good does it do, this play asks; and the answer is just as difficult to confront as Baz’s confession, later in the play, that he had the opportunity to shoot Hitler dead and didn’t take it.
As democracy withers, as Germany sinks into the abyss, so does Agnes. Zillah becomes more and more desperate to speak to her through time, to tell Agnes to get the hell out of Berlin, to save herself. But when she is finally granted her wish by Xillah, Zillah doesn’t get the response she expected, but she gets the answer—you sense—that Kushner has come to in these past few years.
That is: Get the hell out of your domestic space, fight the paralyzing terrors, get active, carry on fighting for yours and your fellow citizens’ present—and for whatever future there can be to come.
Fefu and Her Friends
“I still don’t know what that was about,” one man said to his companion after the performance of Fefu and Her Friends (Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, to Dec. 8) this critic attended.
There is certainly impenetrable mystery in María Irene Fornés’ well-remembered 1977 play, now revived for the first time in New York City since 1978. A group of women—friends, lovers, thinkers, fighters, creators—are gathering at the plushly decorated New England house of Fefu (the magnificent Amelia Workman, with commanding drawl, languor, and side-eye) to prepare for a charity initiative. It is 1935.
The production, which opened Sunday night, is an avant-garde adventure. First and last we watch the women mess around, gossip, and get deep as an ensemble. In between, split into four groups, the audience go on a wonderful theatrical magical mystery tour, to four settings—croquet lawn, bedroom (that is set up like a tomb), kitchen (with the smell of delicious soup), living room/parlor—to watch some more intimate exchanges between them.
Slowly, the play unpeels and then consolidates mysteries; just what is the private and political pain of Julia (Brittany Bradford)? Cindy (Jennifer Lim) knows Fefu’s mischiefs all too well. Sue (Ronete Levenson) is both fun-instigator and order restorer.
Paula (Lindsay Rico) and Cecilia (Carmen Zilles) have some past to contend with. Emma (Helen Cespedes) and Fefu are close, with Emma ready to unleash a powerful speech about the power of art. Christina (Juliana Canfield) looks terrified at everything happening around her. Fefu herself has her own demons.
And well she might, because there is a gun. And wow, that gun is loud when it goes off. It caused not a little fear for some audience members around me.
The play resoundingly passes the Bechdel Test; men are barely mentioned, except in their absence, and that absence tells you everything about their non-place here. The play is beautifully directed (by Lileana Blain-Cruz) designed (by Adam Rigg), and fabulously costumed (by Montana Levi Blanco). As one audience member cried on his way out the afternoon this critic was there, “Those sleeves, honey!”
The puzzled gentleman behind me both has a point and does not. This is self-consciously not a linear play, or one willing to give up all its mysteries. You may leave with questions. It is also one of the most beguiling and intriguing—and challenging in the best way of that word—plays in New York right now. And it's also, very basically, fun to go from one mini-stage to another; it's like experiencing a series of bespoke performances.
If Thanksgiving is in any way a drag with your real family, Fefu and her Friends will provide a refreshing splash of water, just like the one the character who really needs such a splash finally gets. You may not know exactly what is going on, but it doesn’t matter; there is so much pleasure to be gleaned from the mystery of Fefu and Her Friends.