BWW Review: Tony Kushner Inserts Himself Into His Early Effort, A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY
Six years before the world premiere of part one of his eventual Pulitzer-winning, monumental theatre epic ANGELS IN AMERICA, Tony Kushner was an inexperienced 26-year-old playwright who, as inexperienced 26-year-old playwrights are wont to do, wrote and directed an Off-Off Broadway play about young, optimistic bohemians living in Berlin during the rise of Adolf Hitler, which was regularly interrupted by a then-contemporary character offering commentary on the parallels between the emergence of the Third Reich and what was going on in America at the present time.
Since this was 1985, A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY targeted the trickle-down administration of AIDS-ignorer Ronald Reagan. The play wasn't exactly an earth-shaker, but one audience member who saw talent in its author was Oskar Eustis, then co-artistic director of San Francisco's Eureka Theatre. Eustis not only directed a new production for his company, but also commissioned Kushner to write the play that would define his career.
With word of ANGELS IN AMERICA spreading, Joseph Papp then produced A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY at The Public. The earth remained unshaken and the piece was pretty much regulated to obscurity.
Which brings us to the wild new production that returns the drama to The Public, again directed by very the politically-minded Eustis, now that company's artistic director .
Crystal Lucas-Perry, a whirlwind of frenetic energy and a damn good blues singer, plays the Reagan-era character with the Old Testament name Zillah (previous played at The Public by performance artist Reno as a Jewish Long Islander), but now she's joined by a stand-in for Kushner himself, named Xillah, played by Jonathan Hadary as a folksy intellectual progressive.
"It's his first play, this play. It's never worked," Zillah informs viewers after complaining to Xillah that he never bothered to give her "even a trace of a backstory or anything oppositional to do... except creep in between the Berlin scenes to fret and fume ineffectually at the audience about Ronald Reagan."
Xillah is willing to admit that the play doesn't "entirely" work, and yet after years of strictly college productions ("no professional theater would touch the goddamned thing") reaction to the current presidential administration has prompted interest.
"Things are so bad people want to do this play!" he incredulously reports.
That incredulousness is duplicated by Zillah, who, perpetually existing in the Reagan years, is stunned to learn that Donald Trump is president.
So for nearly three hours, we observe the goings-on during the last gasps of Weimer Germany while Xillah, prompted by Zillah's search for a purpose, tries explaining his artistic intentions and even tinkers with attempts at improvements.
Designer David Rockwell's divine set depicts the cramped, yet cozy apartment where Agnes (excellent textured work by Nikki M. James), an actor whose interest in her country's political situation exceeds her understanding of it, lives with her current lover, Husz (Michael Esper), an artistically frustrated Hungarian filmmaker who was kicked out of Russia for being a Trotskyite. ("But in Russia you wouldn't have met me, and you'd never have known my sensual compensations for artistic mediocrity," Agnes tells her depressed beau.)
The play opens on New Year's Eve, where the couple and their friends are toasting the arrival of 1932. As scenes progress, and designer Lucy Mackinnon's projections advise us of the country's political progression, they are all faced with life-changing decisions.
Communist activist Annabella (Linda Emond) sees a revolution ahead but will soon be involved with helping party members escape. Successful actor Paulinka (Grace Gummer) has opium-inspired Hollywood dreams, but must soon decide whether or not to join Germany's new government-run film industry without the help of her Jewish analyst, who suddenly fled the country.
Michael Urie's Baz, a gay man who has grown accustomed to being arrested for his work at the Institute For Human Sexuality, witnesses a Nazi rally and surmises that "Hitler simply offers a lot of very confused and terrified and constipated people precisely what they want, an exhalation, a purgation, catharsis. They're far beyond caring whether Hitler is a socialist or not. They're in love with the shine on his boots."
While all around her take action for the sake of self-preservation, Agnes stays put, hoping to ride out the storm.
Xillah's explanations for the inclusion of Die Älte, a mysterious, elderly woman who haunts Agnes' apartment (92-year-old Estelle Parsons is a wonderfully transfixing presence) and for an appearance by the devil himself (Mark Margolis) are not exactly appreciated by Zillah ("You don't need to say everything. Trust them to get it!"), and by the time he's wrapping things up by explaining where the title came from, the playwright expresses appreciation for the audience's patience. ("I'm keeping you from Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow. Apologies.")
Nobody is going to describe either version of A BRIGHT ROOM CALL DAY as an example of a well-made play, and Kushner would probably consider it an act of misguided generosity to regard it as such, but there is something quite charming and entertaining about its presentation of an accomplished, Pulitzer-winning author trying to make sense out of an ambitious, overwritten drama of his youth. Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow can wait.