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A Bright Room Called Day

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 25, 2019

Michael Urie and Nikki M. James
Photo by Joan Marcus
It's not hard to see why playwright Tony Kushner, who will be remembered always for his masterwork Angels in America, was happy to join up with the Public Theater's artistic director Oskar Eustis for a new production of his pre-Angels play A Bright Room Called Day, opening tonight at the Public. You need look no further than the current president of the United States, whose style and substance of governing has unleashed an urgent need to raise a call to action, or at least the motivation to offer up a theatrical rebuttal, within both men, whose political views lie considerably and unabashedly to the left of those promulgated by the administration.

A Bright Room Called Day, or at least most of it, takes place in Berlin in the early 1930s, a time of extraordinary political instability which ended with the collapse of the Weimer Republic and the explosive rise of fascism. Most of the central characters are serious activists, or at least dabblers, in communism. At one point, there is a rousing chorus of "The Internationale" (led by Linda Emond and Michael Esper's characters, Annabella and Vealtnine) as it seems the Workers' Party is making headway in winning national elections in Germany. But, of course, we know where all this is heading, even without the projected slides giving us snippets of history as it is unfolding.

The play takes place in the apartment of one Agnes Eggling (Nikki M. James), who, when all is said and done, represents the troubled and troubling heart of the story. If you think about the musical Cabaret , she would be the equivalent of Fräulein Schneider, someone who sees herself as a tiny speck in the grand scheme of things and who will stay put in the hopes of remaining invisible to the Nazi machine. When offered a set of doctored papers that will allow her to emigrate to the United States, all she can do is shrug and say, "I don't speak English. I can't function in strange places." In contemporary terms, we might call her a member of the "silent majority."

The other characters, Agnes's friends and acquaintances, float in and out. Among them is a successful film actress, Paulinka (Grace Gummer), whose primary concern with the rise of Hitler is that her Jewish psychotherapist had the audacity to flee Berlin and has left her in a neurotic lurch. Michael Urie plays Gregor, a flamboyant homosexual who has already been arrested once. A couple more Communist activists, Rosa (Nadine Malouf) and Emil (Max Woertendyke), pop in as well. For everyone but Agnes, it is a choice between resistance and flight. Adding to the mix is the glorious Estelle Parsons, on hand as a woman, possibly a neighbor or a homeless person, who comes and goes at will, even if her role in the unfolding plot is unclear.

On paper, all of this sounds like an old-fashioned melodramatic history play. Yet Mr. Kushner is such a strong writer that he is able to instill in his characters a fluidity of speech that is poetic without being flowery, smart without being condescending, and witty without being focused on landing an obvious punchline. Truly, we don't need the slides. We would have no trouble "getting it" without them. It is actually a real strength to have set the play during the pre-Holocaust years. We in the audience are perfectly able to provide our own sense of impending dread, thank you.

But this is a minor quibble, these projected bits of information. The real weaknesses that threaten to sink the experience are those that the playwright has always demonstrated, namely a seeming inability to rein in what has become a trademark tendency to go off on tangents and then attempt with mixed success to make everything seem logically connected. Kushner is like a brilliant debater, well prepared with the proposition but in need of an equally brilliant opposition. Not to mention someone to get him to snip away at those damned digressions.

And what digressions they are! The devil (Mark Margolis) himself appears at the end of Act One, and modern day politics appears in the form of a fourth-wall-breaking contemporary character named Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry), along with a stand-in for the playwright, called Xillah (Jonathan Hadary). In the original production, Zillah was there to press us to connect the dots between Nazi Germany and the United States at the time of Ronald Reagan's presidency. References to Reagan remain, but it is mostly the current administration that is being skewered, and in no uncertain terms. For his part, Mr. Hadary's character is there to provide a humorous self-deprecatory stab at Kushner's reputation for being long-winded. The play may have started out as a tightly written historical drama, but these spin-offs are the stuff that both Kushner and Oskar Eustis seem to be most excited about. No faulting the performances, which are uniformly strong, but these alarums and excursions, vibrant and witty and over-the-top as they are, stop the main story cold.

A Bright Room Called Day
Through December 15, 2019
The Public Theater, Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street (at Astor Place), New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: