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Theatre in Review: Days of Rage (Second Stage)/Gloria: A Life (Daryl Roth Theatre)

Top: Mike Faist, Tavi Gevinson. Bottom: Christine Lahti, Joanna Glushak. Photos: Joan Marcus.

The 1960s, the decade that remains lodged, like a bullet, in the American imagination, looms large in two current productions, only one of which has anything interesting to say. In Days of Rage, Steven Levenson takes the novel approach of portraying the student activists of the period as incompetent losers. He focuses on a little cadre of would-be Weather Underground types living in Ithaca. They call themselves a collective, but the term is surely aspirational, since they are but three: Spence, whose idea of a little light bedtime reading is Lenin; Quinn, who is always calling for criticism sessions aimed at rooting out the ideological errors of her roommates; and Jenny, Spence's girlfriend, or ex-girlfriend, or whatever, since they have adopted a policy of everyone sleeping with everyone.

When their numbers were slightly larger, they bed-hopped according to a posted schedule. But two members have fled, taking the car with them. The left-behind trio is busily, and ineffectually, trying to sign up volunteers to join them for a planned massive demonstration in Chicago against the Vietnam War -- the so-called Days of Rage, held in 1969. The time for peaceful demonstrations is over, Spence insists: "The white working class in America is finished. They've been bought off with refrigerators, mortgages, pensions. Their historical mission is over."

He should talk. Since he, Quinn, and Jenny are the radical version of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, struggling to come up with the rent when not standing forlornly on street corners, trying to interest someone, anyone in their cause. (Jenny is constantly being importuned to hit up her parents for money, never mind that she doesn't speak to them.) Jenny, being ousted from a Sears outlet outside of which she has set up shop, tangles with Hal, one of the store's clerks and a black man, who doesn't buy her party line. (Among other things, Hal has a brother in Vietnam.) Improbably, they start spending time together. Meanwhile, joining the collective is Peggy, who says she is on the run from her mother and stepfather in Seattle, and is almost desperate to get involved. "I hate white people," she announces emphatically, referring to a group that includes herself. Her denunciation is of a piece with Jenny, who, responding to a mild joke by Hal about their ethnic differences, says, in typically self-lacerating fashion, "I am a racist." Hal, slightly unnerved, replies, "You don't laugh very much, do you?"

Both Hal and Peggy prove to be destabilizing forces: He gives Jenny the experience of a private life, which upsets the others, while Peggy constantly stirs the pot, inflaming the group's differences and throwing herself into bed with Spence and Quinn. (The play is loaded with joyless sex designed to make a political statement.) But listening to Quinn denounce monogamy as "one of the main forms of oppression that capitalism uses against people" or Peggy accuse Quinn of being a liberal, using a tone of voice usually reserved for child abusers, or watching Jenny practically go to pieces every time her mother phones up, a question repeatedly comes to mind: Is Steven Levenson clueless about this fraught era, or is he merely incapable of keeping his contempt from showing?

As each character undergoes a meltdown, a cloud of paranoia settles in -- is the government watching or, maybe, physically threatening them? -- which is revealed to have its roots in a bungled act of terrorism. They might endorse violence, at least theoretically, but when Spence is standing at the door, brandishing a gun, and someone says, "Turn the safety off," of course his response is, "What's a safety?"

The number of things one could write about the SDS/Weather Underground is uncountable, but they cannot be faulted for their passion or that they shook up the country and played a major role in a social revolution, a cultural break of the sort that may happen once a century, if even that. They also forced a reckoning about the Vietnam War that might not have happened until much later, if ever. And it's difficult to criticize their embrace of violence unless you believe that they used it to some effect. Levenson's smugly derisive tone, combined with his inability to give anyone in this tribe of waifs a single interesting character trait, causes Days of Rage to be dead on arrival.

Sadly, this is so despite a cast that includes the gifted Mike Faist as Spence and Lauren Patten as the easily wounded Jenny. J. Alphonse Nicholson brings a welcome touch of complexity to Hal, although the idea of a romance between him and Jenny -- a hostile, depressive soul with a wardrobe clearly in need of a trip to the laundry - is laughable. (Similarly, it's hard to believe that any of them would be seduced by the strident, sandpaper-voiced Peggy of Tavi Gevinson.) Trip Cullman's direction works hard to give the action some punch, but it's not clear why he allowed, or encouraged, the set designer, Louisa Thompson, to lumber this small play with a vast, two-story house that constantly moves up- and downstage. It is lit with lovely, detailed time-of-day looks, alternating with violent red washes, by Tyler Micoleau. Paloma Young's costume design neatly contrasts Hal's hip period fashion with the worn-out threads favored by the others. Darron L West's sound design includes plenty of rock music plus key effects, including a tolling bell and a car horn.

Levenson is one of the best of the new crop of playwrights -- he has a keen awareness of contemporary mores and politics -- but Days of Rage feels like it was written after he saw a number of bad movies about the era. The single touching moment comes at the end, with a flash-forward sequence that reveals the future of each character. Only at the very last second does he grant them a modicum of grace.

If Days of Rage is a bad play, Gloria: A Life is barely a play at all. Instead, it's a bio show/love-in/town hall meeting/therapy session conducted by the magnetic Christine Lahti in the guise of pioneer second-wave feminist Gloria Steinem. You can fault it for all sorts of reasons, not least the heart it sometimes wears, all too embarrassingly, on its sleeve, but, unlike Levenson's play, it knows what it is talking about.

In typical bio-play fashion, Emily Mann's script consists of Steinem narrating the story of her life, from her youth in Toledo, Ohio, to just the other day; as a matter of course, a big chunk of it focuses on the 1960s, the decade when Steinem, a freelance journalist, experienced a political awakening and helped to lead the charge that resulted in, among other things, Roe v. Wade, the ERA, debates about child care and pay equity, and several generations of women who no longed believed that they had to spend their lives in the kitchen, fretting about waxy yellow buildup. Like most such pieces, it's a straightforward evening of show-and-tell, but, for all its seeming artlessness, it vividly conveys why the feminist movement was necessary, and why Steinem was so central to it.

The daughter of a woman who slipped into mental illness after denying herself a career and romantic fulfillment, Steinem attends Smith College, where an engagement ring is a must-have accessory. Launching herself as a reporter, she is consigned to the ghetto of the women's page, turning out pap about the latest patterned stockings and Hollywood celebrities. Waiting for one such subject to show up for an interview, she gets kicked out of the Plaza Hotel lobby by a manager who suspects her of being a hooker on the prowl. And then there is the infamous Playboy Club episode, where she gets hired as a Bunny to report on the appalling working conditions. (At least geishas get respect; the Bunnies got manhandled for chicken-feed wages.) She now professes to be mortified by this affair, but it puts her on the map -- even if it is followed by an episode in which Saul Bellow and Gay Talese dismiss her as that year's girl writer, soon to vanish like all the others.

Once she gets wise to the thousand and one ways women are demeaned in our culture, she goes on the offensive, traveling the country and listening to women talk about abusive marriages, unwanted pregnancies, sexual harassment, unequal pay, and much more. Out of these straightforward discussions emerges a nationwide movement; by shining a light on these many evils, an old way of life begins to implode from its internal contradictions. Meanwhile, Ms. Magazine is born, the first print run selling out in a matter of days, and Steinem becomes a national celebrity/bugaboo.

There is much more, as the script follows Steinem up to the present day; the performance I attended, which was shortly before the midterm elections, included more than one instance of the audience being urged to vote. Gloria: A Life, is most generous in naming the many women who have accompanied Steinem along the way, making vital contributions, but it is important to note that this is more pep rally than serious history. Certain messy facts -- like the ambivalence of some early second-wave feminists toward lesbians -- are glossed over entirely, and Steinem's personal life, including her rather surprising relationship with the real estate developer Mortimer Zuckerman, is, on the whole, left alone. (There is a poignant account of her brief marriage to David Bale, who died much too young from lymphoma.) The show ends with a mandatory talkback -- well, they call it a talking circle -- the sort of event I have spent my life trying to avoid, although at my performance an audience member told a priceless story about Bella Abzug.

But, whatever might seem a little flat or flawed about this portrait, it is full of the juice of the 1960s, a time when, as someone sings in Follies, everything was possible and nothing made sense. In a very short period of time, Steinem et al. changed the world in ways that are still felt today, and Gloria: A Life captures the sheer exhilaration of the discovery, made by millions of women, that they could be powerful, too. Diane Paulus' breezy direction keeps things lively, and, among the busy supporting players who stand in for the men and women in Steinem's life, my favorite was Joanna Glushak, both as Gloria's hopelessly broken mother and as a riotously bellicose Bella Abzug. It goes without saying that Lahti is absolutely divine, channeling Steinem's charisma throughout the evening.

The production design is calculated to create an atmosphere of warmth and sharing. Amy Rubin's in-the-round design covers the floor in Oriental carpets and provides a pillow for every seat in the audience. The walls are filled with Elaine J. McCarthy's delightful projections, a panoply of magazine ads, TV commercials, news broadcasts, talk show soundbites, and Phyllis Schlafly, in the role of prune-faced sibyl, announcing that women's libbers will be the death of the American family. My personal favorite is the clip of ABC newsman Harry Reasoner, glibly predicting that Ms. will be a publishing disaster -- words that he is forced to eat in a follow-up sequence. Jessica Jahn's costumes and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting are solidly done. At my performance, the sound design, by Robert Kaplowitz and Andrea Allmond, was haunted by a persistent sonic fuzz that became most distracting; I assume this has been figured out.

Perhaps the most genuinely moving thing about Gloria: A Life is Steinem's assertion that, in these rocky political times, women's activism may be stronger than ever. As I write this, one hundred and eighteen women are poised to be part of the next Congress. Somewhere -- rather down below, I expect -- Phyllis Schlafly is spinning in her grave, if not turning on a spit. -- David Barbour

(8 November 2018)

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