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BWW Review: Trump-Era Liberals Are All At Sea In Anne Washburn's SHIPWRECK

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The playwright's "History Play about 2017" is thick with discussion and a bit of fantasia.

While not exactly a moment of déjà vu, I did feel a sense of the familiar while listening to director Saheem Ali's new podcast production of Anne Washburn's provocative play of Trump-era liberal ideology, SHIPWRECK, subtitled "a History Play about 2017". It was followed almost immediately by an internal debate as to whether or not it was okay to mention it in this review.

BWW Review: Trump-Era Liberals Are All At Sea In Anne Washburn's SHIPWRECK
Brooke Bloom, Mia Barron, Rich Topol,
Rob Campbell and Sue Jean Kim in rehearsal
(Screenshot courtesy of The Public Theater)

You see, a great deal of Washburn's play, which premiered in London in February of 2019 and then opened, helmed by Ali, at D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth a year later, concerns characters who are of varying degrees to the left of center spending an evening during the first year of Donald Trump's presidency talking about political and social issues, and the ways we express our thoughts about them, while managing through a power outage on a visit to a remote farmhouse.

It didn't take long before I was noting parallels between this and Will Arbery's Pulitzer finalist HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING, which premiered at Playwrights Horizons last September. Also set in 2017, Arbery's play has varying degrees of conservative characters, also spending an evening in a remote rural area, discussing the future for their political and social leanings after the victory of an unexpected new figurehead.

Increasing the similarity is how, by presenting SHIPWRECK in an exclusively audio production (it was intended to be running at The Public Theater at this time can be heard by clicking here.), the experience de-emphasizes the individuality of the characters, with the ideas behind their political discourse taking center stage. This replicates my experience viewing Arbery's play, where the exceedingly dim lighting reduced the individuality of the characters to shadowy figures engaging in debate.

So would it, for reasons that this male theatregoer wouldn't immediately grasp, be sexist to even mention the similarity instead of just discussing Washburn's play solely on its own terms? Does the appearance of sexism, despite being unintentional, equal the existence of it?

I did, figuratively, of course, raise an eyebrow when Washburn had a white character pondering similar concerns regarding being called racist for expressing opinions that reveal how unaware a speaker may be of the experiences of others.

My sigh of relief (again, figurative) came while listening to Washburn herself discussing with Arbery the mutual challenges in writing their plays in the post-performance wrap-up titled The Water Cooler.

So was my worry for naught? Or maybe it was a real-life example of the new concerns that permeate the thoughts of Washburn's characters before they're committed to expression.

The playwright specifies the race of each character in her press script, with all, except those noted in this review, being white. Jools (Sue Jean Kim), described as "all or part Asian" is breaking in the new weekend getaway in the country she and her other half Richard (Richard Topol) have purchased by having friends over for dinner. Symbolism abounds as they discuss how the place has been occupied by members of the same family since it was built in 1776 and how, though the boiler is top-notch, there's plenty of trouble with the roof.

Their guests include two other couples. Luis (Raul Esparza), who is Latinx, and Andrew (Jeremy Shamos) are financially "in the real lowlands of the 1%." ("There's a very steep rise not long after us."). The decidedly grassroots Mare (Mia Barron) and Jim (Rob Campbell) arrive right after assisting the doula when their friend gives birth. ("Too soon to know," Mare answers, when Andrew questions if "her" or "they" is the more appropriate pronoun for baby Hannah.)

The time is right after James Comey's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, and though the others express weariness at discussing the new administration, Allie (Brooke Bloom) appears anxious to let off infuriated steam. After pondering if America's days of voting are numbered, the mention of the phrase "white privilege" triggers her opinions on the willingness to accept blame on race issues without nuanced discussion. ("This is such a white liberal thing, though, right? To shut down our own debate.")

Another character reveals how, instead of filling in the circle for Hillary Clinton, they used their vote to express a desire to see the whole American system turned to rubble so that a liberal savior can later rebuild it.

BWW Review: Trump-Era Liberals Are All At Sea In Anne Washburn's SHIPWRECK
Director Saheem Ali in rehearsal
(Screenshot courtesy of The Public Theater)

Their discussion, always interesting and often amusing, occasionally gives way to more somber monologues delivered to the audience from one of the farmhouse's former residents. When, in the early 1970s, Lawrence (Bruce McKenzie) and his wife came to realize the difficulty they may have in adopting a white baby, they opted to take in a child from an orphanage in Kenya, thinking "bringing that child into a western home with running water and all the food parents and love and opportunities that just seemed like a win from every angle."

His speeches touch upon how the race differences bring special complications to parenthood, which lead to how, in a country where there's a movement of people regarding him as racist, he can be attracted to an imperfect political candidate who doesn't make him feel perceived as "just plain wrong" for his views.

(When SHIPWRECK played at Woolly Mammoth, Lawrence's son, now an adult, spoke monologues to the audience, but Washburn has expressed that she no longer thought it appropriate for her, a white playwright, to create the voice of such a character.)

Other scenes step into fantasia territory, having a vigorous, imposing Donald Trump (Bill Camp) in full deal-making mode during a 2003 meeting where President George W. Bush (Phillip James Brannon) asks for public support for his war in Iraq. Another, more menacing, vignette has Trump coaching FBI Director Comey (Joe Morton) on the importance of loyalty. (Washburn specifies that Bush, Comey and Trump's secretary - Jenny Jules in this production - are to be played by Black actors.)

"Why don't we just give up and agree that plays are never going to be relevant or useful to the current moment?," musses an exasperated Jools when the farmhouse discussion involves the 2017 Shakespeare In The Park production of JULIUS CAESAR, depicting the Roman statesman as a Donald Trump replica.

Luis points out how in ancient Greece the theatre was a place where then-contemporary issues were brought to the forefront.

"The audience is the entire voting population of Athens, and all of the ruling class. Attendance is mandatory," he explains.

"These big flashy tragedies full of bloodshed and heartbreak, circle around arguments which don't resolve, they are full of questions which can't be answered... These plays do not have a message, there is no clear take away you don't leave these plays satisfied you leave them feeling uneasy about who and what is right and wrong and it is in the discussing these plays the day after, in hashing out the right and the wrong of it around the 5th Century B.C. version of a water cooler that we become a people."

The discussion, coming relatively early in the proceedings, no doubt expresses the playwright's purpose in SHIPWRECK. This is not a play meant to examine universal truths that future audiences will find timeless. This is a play that cries out to those of the here and now that this is who many of us are... and we need to gather at the water cooler and talk about it.


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From This Author Michael Dale