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Theatre in Review: A Bright Room Called Day (Public Theater)

Caption: Michael Urie, Nikki M. James. Photo: Joan Marcus.

When the projections are the best thing about a production, you've got a problem. A Bright Room Called Day is largely set in early 1930s Berlin -- when it isn't making side excursions into the mind of playwright Tony Kushner -- and, between scenes of intramural squabbling among a gaggle of bohemians, projection designer Lucy Mackinnon delivers a series of baleful updates on the collapse of the Weimar Republic and rise of the Nazi Party; these nuggets of information, taken from the text, form a steady drumbeat of doom that the characters are seemingly unable to confront. Mackinnon also provides, as per the script, images of a Hitler rally -- an event that, admittedly, has an unsettlingly familiar feeling these days -- that zoom in on the tantalizing sight of a single woman standing still and looking grim amid the surrounding arm-waving hubbub. It's a bit of pure mystery: Why was she there? What was she thinking? How long did she last amid the chaos? Many nights in the theatre, I wonder why a production has projections; here they are absolutely necessary.

Oskar Eustis' production has other solid aspects, including an attractive design and a starry, enthusiastic cast, all in the service of a play that refuses to budge. Dead on arrival when first seen at the Public in 1991, thanks to its irritatingly facile and misleading parallels between the Nazi regime and the Reagan Administration, it has been tinkered with by the author, with results that only add to its dramatic inertia. Much of A Bright Room Called Day focuses on a small band of Berliners -- most of them connected to the film industry -- who dither and argue while, underneath them, a trapdoor leading to a world-historical inferno opens up. They include Agnes, a sometime actress and Communist fellow traveler; Annabella, a dedicated Party member given to stentorian pronouncements; Paulinka, a self-involved actress, opium addict, and devotee of psychoanalysis; Husz, an argumentative Trotskyite cameraman; and Gregor, who is gay and associated with the Institute of Human Sexuality, presumably the entity founded by the pioneering sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. Gregor adheres to Wilhelm Reichian ideas about the efficacy of orgasms, which he tries to have once a day.

Scene after scene of A Bright Room Called Day features them carrying on, ineffectually, even as German society (as reported by those projections) slides into the abyss. Indeed, Kushner seems intent on showing how determinedly unserious this bunch is, via jokes that are equally undermining and unamusing. "My being homosexual brings me into contact with more proletarians than you can imagine," Gregor says, using his nights spent roaming the Tiergarten to demonstrate his solidarity bona fides. Paulinka, who is erotically obsessed with her hairy, big-bellied Jewish therapist, says, "I lie back and think of Vienna." Agnes, demonstrating her utter lack of perception -- and the author's gift for leaden irony -- announces, "We live in Berlin. It's 1932. We're relatively safe." Kushner isn't sufficiently interested in his characters to probe the psychology of their inaction and/or misdirected energy; they are positions rather than people, and one-note positions at that.

The playwright makes a strong argument about the dangers of doctrinal purity, noting how, during Weimar's waning days, the Communists, weakened by infighting, failed to make an alliance with the Social Democrats, thus paving the way for Hitler. (At one point, a pair of comrades shows up to inform the bewildered Agnes that the agitprop puppet show she has written and directed is "left-deviationist adventurist opportunism" and is to be terminated immediately.) And there is something eerily of today in Gregor's assertion that "the fascists don't try to make sense. They abandon morality, money, justice. Hitler simply offers a lot of very confused and terrified and constipated people precisely what they want, an exhalation, a purgation, catharsis."

But Kushner's arguments are repetitive, to say the least, and Agnes and her circle simply aren't interesting enough to hold one's attention for the nearly three-hour running time: They do nothing, talk about doing nothing, and then decide it is time to get the hell out of the country. Adding to the length are the many appearances of Zillah, a woman of the 1980s, who, as per the original version of the script, is inserted into the play to provide a kind of running commentary. Arguably, Zillah's presence is what sunk A Bright Room Called Day the first time around, especially with critics who called out Kushner for making a hash of history with his Hitler -- Reagan comparisons. This time out, the playwright doubles down on the gambit, partnering Zillah with Xillah, an authorial stand-in who bickers with Zillah about the thrust of the play. ("It's his first play, this play," she tells the audience. "It's never worked.") Zillah, who inhabits the era of Donald Trump, nags Xillah incessantly, demanding to be inserted into the action to warn the characters about their fates. More often, they indulge in cutesy, self-referential bickering. Discussing Die Alte, the spectral creature who haunts Agnes at night, they have the following exchange:

Zillah: So, let me ask you, the spooky old lady. What is she?

Xillah: She's... I don't know how to - She's a night bat, she's unaccountable, an unaccountable presence.

Zillah: Unaccountable. Like me.

Xillah: You're more like a formalistic gambit that didn't pay off.

In one particularly grating digression, Xillah confesses that he has never understood the title of his own play -- a statement that is hardly a confidence-builder; it leads to a long and tedious side trip that takes in Cecil B. DeMille, Charlton Heston's bad acting, and, once again, the perfidy of Ronald Reagan's presidency. At moments like these, it seems all too apparent that the members of the audience have paid good money to watch Tony Kushner talking to himself -- about issues that should have been hashed out during rehearsals, at the very latest. Matters are not helped by the appearance, late in Act One, of the Devil, whose presence is justified on the grounds that he has been the "German National Mascot" since Goethe's Faust. This cues a monologue, accompanied by fire effects, that further reminds anyone who has been asleep for the previous hour that this story won't end well.

Perhaps sensing that these papery creatures need all the help they can get, Eustis has cast them with actors who bring plenty of personality with them. If Linda Emond (Annabella), Grace Gummer (Paulinka), and Michael Urie (Gregor) make use of familiar mannerisms, at least they liven things up. As Agnes, Nikki M. James works extra hard, but she has to contend with a character whose inner paralysis is left largely unexplained. Michael Esper lends his presence to Husz, but he tends to garble his lines. Jonathan Hadary and Crystal Lucas-Perry lend solid comic timing to the Xillah -- Zillah routines, but they are trapped in a holding pattern in which she constantly demands to be inserted into the Berlin action and he endlessly demurs. As Die Alte, Estelle Parsons continues to astound with a vitality that belies her 92 years; she even takes part in a physical altercation.

On the design side, David Rockwell has supplied attractive artists' digs, complete with a ceiling piece (fitted with skylight) that moves. The costumes, by Susan Hilferty and Sarita Fellows, ground the action solidly in the period. John Torres' lighting creates a series of evocative time-of-day effects. Bray Poor's sound design includes a number of effectively chosen classical music selections, along with such ambient effects as cheering crowds.

Of course, A Bright Room Called Day was Kushner's first work, so one doesn't expect a masterpiece. (It was first staged Off Off Broadway in 1985.) And, as you may recall, he went on to better things. That, more than three decades later, he is still fiddling with this piece, fruitlessly, is dispiriting. The central questions of the play -- "How to acquire power while remaining awake to the world? How do we lose neither the name of action nor our immortal souls?" -- remain provocative but are handled so unsatisfyingly as to result in boredom. It's time to let this one rest, I think. --David Barbour

(3 December 2019)

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