Wednesday, November 17, 2010

THEATER: After the Revolution

After After the Revolution, I stood around and surreptitiously listened to a group of older theatergoers--some in tears--as they mulled over whether there was a broader appeal to Amy Herzog's play, which deals with the repercussions of American Communists some sixty years after HUAC. It's a silly thing to wonder about, however, because the appeal of Herzog's play is not in its politics, but rather in its family drama--which is why After the Revolution works so well as a political play. (As Herzog puts it, in Playwrights Horizons's freely distributed after-show pamphlet interviews [conducted by Adam Greenfield]: "The politics are serving the family story, instead of vice versa. If I'd written the play in 2005, I think it would have been a more cerebral, more bloodless play.") You don't need to know the history to get involved, you just need to understand why Emma (Katharine Powell), who is running a politically active fund in her late, persecuted grandfather's name, feels so betrayed by the discovery that her father, Ben (the terrific Peter Friedman), has been keeping secrets from her. And you don't need to agree with the politics of grandmotherly Vera (Lois Smith) to feel her disappointment in a mostly apathetic, or selling-out generation.

"It can be tough to know what's right," says Morty (David Margulies), a wizened contributor to Emma's fund, and that's why neither he nor Herzog pretend to have the answers. Instead, they both go with their guts (which seems to be how politics works); the result is a political play that isn't slickly plotted, that isn't meted out in sound-bites--a political play that is spoken from the heart. In the most effective scene of the night, we watch Emma sitting on her couch, again and again inches from picking up the phone, as Ben (whom director Carolyn Cantor has cleverly placed nearby on stage) leaves her a rambling message aimed at repairing their shattered trust. Ben's inability to get through to his daughter--literally--drives him to a variety of ill-advised tactics, but then again, to err is human, and it is only through these scenes that Herzog is able to start forgiving.

After the Revolution isn't a perfect play: Miguel (Elliot Villar), Emma's boyfriend, is trotted out first as a punchline (how progressive the very white Emma is to date a Hispanic man) and then as a political and personal foil, then promptly disappears. Ben's brother, Leo (Mark Blum), is a voice of reason, but then again, so is Ben's wife, Mel (Mare Winningham), and she's at least given a stirring anecdote about civil disobedience, not to mention enough folksy charm to work out an otherwise stiff role. As for Emma's sister, Jess (Meredith Holzman); she feels like she's dropping in from another play: she's too obviously being used as an apolitical balance, and because her character has so little invested in the stakes of the play, her scenes can't help feeling a little contrived. However, if anything, these imperfections only make the core of the play stronger, and Cantor does a good job of focusing on the key elements of Herzog's play--even if Clint Ramos's all-in-one living room set (cluttered with images) doesn't.

We don't need to agree with one another, but we should be able to talk with one another, to understand what drives us to take even the most radical of actions in the name of the things we truly believe in. Politics cannot be minimized to a two-party system, to a "pro" this and a "pro" that (-life and -choice, for example); it must be lived, must be acknowledged as a part of our ethos, of who we are. That's the world in which After the Revolution's characters live in, those are its stakes, and that is why its revealed secrets come across as such damaging betrayals. It's not a revolution in itself, but it's a stirring bit of theater.

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