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Theatre in Review: Shipwreck (The Public Theater Online)

The cast of Shipwreck

There's no actual shipwreck in Anne Washburn's new play, but you can plausibly conclude that her concern is with the ship of state, a vessel that, by any reasonable measure, is headed straight for the rocks. To illustrate this proposition, she convenes a group of friends, referred to by the narrator as "the Liberals," at a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. (We have an occasional narrator because Shipwreck, a coproduction with Washington DC's Woolly Mammoth Theatre, has been adapted to a radio play format that can be downloaded at the Public's website. The play was previously staged, in rather different form, at London's Almeida Theatre.) The gathering takes place on the day of James Comey's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, and that event -- and a great many others -- will get a vigorous airing as a weekend in the country turns nightmarish, thanks to lack of food, failing electricity, and a violent snowstorm.

But Shipwreck also makes stops at Trump Tower and the White House, where Donald J. Trump has fateful encounters with George W. Bush and Comey. And the focus occasionally shifts to Lawrence, a farmer who has adopted a son from Africa, yet whose political views are not what such a gesture might lead one to expect. What do all these characters and plot elements have to do with each other? In truth, not much. Constructed dialectically rather than dramatically, Shipwreck is an investigation into the state of the American soul at this particularly fraught moment; it's a sincere attempt at understanding how we got to where we are, and if it isn't totally successful, it wrestles with the facts of our political divide with a candor and insight that call to mind Will Arbery's Heroes of the Fourth Turning.

The largest panel in Washburn's triptych is given over to the Liberals. Jools and Richard are hosting friends at their recently purchased country home, but Richard has failed to do a grocery run, and as the weather grows increasingly inclement, there is little to do but gather round the fire and talk about the state of things. To firmly place us in the summer of 2017, reference is made to the Public Theater's production of Julius Caesar, in which the title character was made into a dead ringer for the president, a directorial choice that led to plenty of conservative outrage. But the entire cast of political characters is invoked, from Mitch McConnell to Hillary Clinton to Merrick Garland. Other topics include the First Amendment, populism, and who among them qualifies for membership in the top 1% of earners, which provokes the amusing admission that one couple is "in the real lowlands of the 1%," followed by the assurance "there's a very steep rise after us." Washburn, who can be simultaneously sympathetic and merciless, is especially good on this crowd's uneasy way with racial issues. (Their responses range from tone-deaf to tongue-tied.) The portrait that emerges is of right-thinking, endlessly outraged, and utterly ineffectual bien peasants; they're peerless at complaining and pretty much paralyzed when it comes to expressing a vision of the greater good.

At one point, Jim Jones, of all people, the notorious Jonestown dictator and server of Kool-Aid, gets introduced into the conversation. We are told that before he was a monster presiding over a mass suicide, Jones was viewed as a messenger of "the liberal dream of relevance," his People's Temple openly admired by Mayor George Moscone, Harvey Milk, Rosalynn Carter, and Walter Mondale, among others. This argument, put forth by one of the houseguests, Jim, whose family has a vague connection to Jones, is juxtaposed with the musings of Luis, a corporate lawyer who has logged long hours in working-class bars trying to get at the essence of Trump's appeal to his base. "Trump supporters also think that it's a big, epic battle of good and evil," he says, "Everyone in their corners, fighting for their lives, it's not great." Or, as Jim notes, "We're no better than they are, those poor Republicans. They have been waiting for this their whole lives: the wall, the swamp, the city on the hill, the Trump-et. He is showing them the world from an exceedingly high mountain and they cannot tear their eyes away."

Washburn allows these characters a portion of good faith, but in capturing their whiny self-absorption and reliance on creature comforts, she runs the risk of rendering them insufferable at times. This is glaringly obvious in the characterization of Allie, the most voluble and, at times, most clueless of the group, as well as arguably the most honest. Her aria about the now-fashionable, widespread use of "white supremacy" as a catchall term for any form of racially insensitive behavior is not without its points, but it also reverberates with the fury of someone who thought she knew how the moral game was played and doesn't enjoy the new and abrupt change in rules. Brooke Bloom plays Allie fearlessly, leaving the character's contradictions exposed for all to see, but she can be a trial, as can her friends who seem defined by impotence and complaint.

But it is in the Trump scenes that I think Washburn makes her biggest miscalculation. Both encounters are wildly, fancifully written, making them a testament to the playwright's exceptionally fertile imagination. In the first, Trump ends up going mano a mano with Bush over the right to run for the presidency. The Comey scene is a kind of seduction-over-candlelit-dinner -- really, all that's missing are gypsy violins -- and it ends with a furious, almost biblical, denunciation that Joe Morton (as Comey) delivers with revivalist force. But rather than give us the staggeringly lazy, incurious, and incompetent figure now prowling the national stage, she reimagines Trump as a kind of evil genius --narcissistic and self-dealing to be sure, but clever and well-spoken in a way that never rings true. The true mystery of Trump is how someone whose vices are so transparent won such a loyal following. In other parts of Shipwreck, she supplies some extremely provocative ideas; in these two scenes, she elevates him unrealistically.

Compared to the rest, the narrative thread involving Lawrence the farmer unfolds in a kind of blessed hush: Washburn is at her most eloquent when he recalls adopting his son and discovering the unexpected joys of fatherhood, such as navigating him through the shoals of life in an all-white community. And yet when the topic of choosing a presidential candidate comes around, the playwright insists that this kind, socially aware, and well-informed person can make a horrifying choice -- and she makes you believe it.

If it sounds like I have many complaints about Shipwreck, it's only a sign of how deeply engaging I found it through most of its running time. Over the last four years I've lost track of how many plays grabbed for easy laughs or self-serving ovations by taking potshots at Trump. (Imagine: Trashing the president in front a New York subscription theatre audience. How brave.) But Washburn is after something deeper and truer, and even when it threatens to fall apart, Shipwreck nails the fundamental problem of American politics of the moment: Whether Trump is on the scene or not, the country is riven by wildly opposing, seemingly irreconcilable visions, leaving us all with an extremely murky path forward, perhaps an impassable one. In the search for validation and a transcendent vision, no one on either end of the political spectrum is immune to manipulation. As Trump styles himself in the play, he is the "voice for the voiceless." There are many people who believe that. There were many people who believed it when Mussolini said it, or something very much like it.

The conversion of the script to the radio play format feels seamless and, under Saheem Ali's direction, the cast, drawn from the cream of New York theatre, delivers on all fronts. Among those not previously mentioned, standouts include Raúl Esparza as Luis, obsessed (and perhaps a little bit in love) with Trump's dark appeal; Jeremy Shamos as Luis' increasingly appalled lover; Bruce McKenzie, brimming with quiet integrity as Lawrence; and Bill Camp, a villain out of a Batman film as Trump. Special mention goes to Palmer Hefferan's sound design, which keeps us on track through the play's many shifts and adds plenty of evocative detail.

Of course, there couldn't be a more apropos moment to be seeing Shipwreck; even after life returns to something like normal, with reopened theatres and (please God) a new president, it would be a pleasure to see onstage. Washburn told the New York Times that nothing would make her happier than for this play to become irrelevant. But no matter who is in the White House, she is asking questions that will linger, uncomfortably, for a long time. -- David Barbour

(21 October 2020)

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