Saturday, December 4, 2010

Political Machinations and Smalltown Mores

Peter Friedman, Mark Blum, Mare Winningham, Katharine Powell and Lois Smith, above, in “After the Revolution.” Photo by Joan Marcus.


lives, or just everyday, small town lives, figure in three plays. “After the Revolution” and “Middletown” are both exciting new plays, while “Rosmersholm” is still current and timely after nearly a century and a half.

“After The Revolution,” written by Amy Herzog and directed by Carolyn Cantor is having its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater through 12 Dec.

AH has hung a poignant and personal family drama on a political scarecrow. Even now, after the fall of the Soviet Union, many Americans are frightened of Communists and Communism.

The Josephs is a clan with a legacy of activism, inherited from Joe, who, according to family legend, refused to name names at the McCarthy hearings. Joe, who died a year before the play begins, and his widow, Vera (Lois Smith) , were Communist ideologues.

It’s always a pleasure to see LS; here she is marvelous as the dry family matriarch, single-minded in her devotion to her late husband’s legacy. Despite the fact that she has difficulty remembering basic words for simple things, she still has all the political certitude of her youth.

Mare Winningham as Mel is sweet and natural in a small role as a “belle mere.”

The next generation of Josephs is a people of conviction in keeping with their patriarch’s heritage. Joe’s sons, Ben (Peter Friedman) and Leo (Mark Blum) carry on the legacy to a more and lesser degree. Ben is a teacher who preaches to and sometimes converts his students to his left-wing ideology. He is torn between his loyalty to his father’s memory and devotion to his daughter. Leo has a less complicated relationship to the family’s ideological past.

Ben’s daughter, Emma (Katharine Powell) is the bright pride of the family. Even before graduating from law school, she established the Joe Josephs Foundation to defend the rights of those oppressed by racism and social injustice. Her biggest case is the defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, accused of shooting police officer Daniel Faulkner in the face in 1981 and still sitting on death row. In her foundation appeals, she compares the conviction of MA-J with the persecution of her grandfather.

David Margulies as Morty, a donor to the Foundation, gives a funny and intelligent portrayal of a man who did not stand up when names were named and who won’t make the same choice now.

This is a story of family pride and disillusion. During the course of “After the Revolution,” Emma questions many family beliefs, and deeply held political certainties and suffers a paralyzing crisis of faith. Emma’s sister, Jess (Meredith Holzman), is freshly out of rehab and is not involved in the family’s politics. She helps Emma reconcile with the family’s dark secret.

Austin Pendleton and Bradford Cover in “Rosmersholm.” Photo by Gregory Costanzo.

Another political play is Henrik Ibsen’s “Rosmersholm” in which lofty ideals come up against cold realties, secrets threaten to destroy carefully constructed facades, friendships are threatened and so on.

This new and lively adaptation from Mike Poulton is directed by Elinor Reinfield, at the Pearl Theatre Company in City Center’s Stage II.

Johannes Rosmer (Bradford Cover) is Margo White's (Rebecca West) dream of an idyllic future. Doctor Kroll (Austin Pendleton), a vicious conservative humbug and Rosmer’s brother-in-law, has similar hopes for the man. After his defeat and his party’s downturn in the elections, Doctor Kroll wants to put up an impeccable candidate. Father Rosmer, the doctor believes, can save his conservatives from democratic rabble. Rosmer, however, has succumbed to Rebecca’s liberalism. He has also abandoned his faith and renounced his priesthood.

Rebecca’s machinations do harm to her ambitions and to her heart’s desire. In the year since her friend, Beata – Rosmer’s wife – committed suicide, Rebecca has insinuated herself into his household. She sees her chance to use the respected Rosmer name to do good and offer people real opportunities for a better, more enlightened life.

The rabble Doctor Kroll fears is represented by a complete pragmatist, Peder Mortensgaard (Dominic Cuskern). In his past and more puritanical set of mind, Rosmer had Mortensgaard ex-communicated. The latter has survived to run a left-wing paper, giving the people, as he puts it, what they want. He, too, is a demagogue, and disinterested in an alliance with Rosmer now that Rosmer is no longer a priest.

Rosmer is the only principled man left in Norway. His religious defection, his wife’s suicide and his living in the house with Rebecca all compromise his chance to be a political force. Eventually, Rosmer and Rebecca join in an apotheosis of despair.

“Middletown” is not about politics but about life. Its sheer ordinariness is a kind of despair. Life and death are the human condition that Will Eno’s new play, premiering at the Vineyard Theatre through 5 Dec., reveals.

Linus Roache and Heather Burns at opening night of "Middletown." Photo from Vineyard Theatre Facebook page.

This reviewer must credit her husband for his favorable comparison of “Middletown” to “Our Town.” With this inaugural Horton Foote Award winner for Most Promising New Play of 2010, WE has written an homage to Thornton Wilder’s classic. It’s a funny and bleak look at life in a small town.

Standouts among an outstanding “Middletown” cast are: Michael Park’s brutal but sympathetic cop; Linus Roache’s jack-of-all-trades, John Dodge, and Heather Burns' sweet town newbie and soon-to-be-mom, Mary Swanson.

James McMenamin is marvelous as the town’s ne’er do well whom it is revealed near the end of the play is named Craig. Georgia Engel is fastidiously upbeat as the librarian who seems to know everybody.

From the introduction scene in “Middletown” given by a Public Speaker (David Garrison) to the end, language – words, verbiage – plays a big part in the drama. In one scene, John is lying under Mary Swanson’s sink. He is talking as he is working. At first it is easy to understand him clearly, then his speech becomes distorted in the cabinetry. Mary Swanson agrees with him, thinking she gets his meaning, but it is evident that she does not. “Well no, you’re just making sounds with your mouth," she informs John.

In "Middletown," communication is simple and, very complicated.

Visit to learn more about “After the Revolution,” and Playwrights Horizon, and to learn more about “Rosmersholm,” and The Pearl Theatre Company, and to learn more about “Middletown” and the Vineyard Theatre Company.

Tamara Beck is President, Clean Lists Associates, Inc, an association management firm. And an avid theater-goer.

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