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Theatre in Review: Eureka Day (Colt Coeur/Walkerspace)

KK Moggie, Thomas Jay Ryan, Tina Benko. Photo: Robert Altman.

Bravely tackling a red-hot topic currently inflaming our social discourse, Eureka Day seemingly breaks one of the cardinal rules of playwrighting, adopting a different tone for virtually every scene. That it treads in such surefooted fashion from farce to heartbreak to gloves-off confrontation is a testament to author Jonathan Spector's nimble way with his characters. Spector, who is based in the Bay Area, has a wicked eye for the woke pretensions of his fellow citizens - which recalls some of the funnier passages in Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette -- and he knows how to land a dramatic knockout punch when the occasion demands.

Eureka Day is set in a Berkeley private school so progressive it hurts: It's the kind of place where, at soccer games, the student body cheers when the opposing team scores; where a production of Peter Pan is relocated to outer space because "aside from the extremely problematic portrayal of Native Peoples there's actually a whole host of colonialist issues in terms of the content;" and where, addressing potential students, the dropdown menu on the web page name-checks a staggering number of ethnic groups ("West Asian Heritage, Multiracial Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian Heritage, South Asian Heritage, Southeast Asian Heritage" -- and that's only one part of the world). The parents who sit on the school's board are determined to outdo each other in their welcoming attitudes. As Suzanne, the queen bee in this hive of political correctness, notes, "There's no benefit in feeling seen if you're simultaneously being othered."

The first part of Eureka Day is purely a fish-in-a-barrel shooting match, although an often very funny one, informed by Spector's unfailing ear for the freshly minted clich├ęs of twenty-first-century leftist enlightenment, including earnest discussions of whether "transracial adoptee" is really a category of minority; of course, everyone avoids gender pronouns when discussing the students. Occasionally, school politics takes a back seat to the characters' equally self-conscious personal lives. A young husband, in an open marriage, invites his lover home for a sleepover; his wife is out of town and a caregiver is watching their child. "Won't the babysitter think it's strange if you bring some random woman home?" his girlfriend asks. "She's very progressive," he replies. "We met her at Burning Man." It's all good fun, even if there's a distinct scent of self-congratulation in the air -- this is material that practically lampoons itself -- and audience members who have experienced Larissa FastHorse's riotous The Thanksgiving Play or The Mad Ones' intensively detailed studies of passive-aggression may find Eureka Day to be a slightly warmed-over serving of satire.

Then again, the cast, under the acute direction of Adrienne Campbell-Holt, make for excellent company, and Spector has all sorts of surprises to roll out. The action makes an abrupt switch into sketch comedy when an outbreak of mumps throws the school into chaos, and Don, the people-pleasing headmaster, hosts a Facebook Live session to allay parents' fears. A dismaying number of students haven't been immunized, the health department has intervened, and panic and fury are rife -- a situation that the playwright perversely mines for uproarious fun. As Don struggles to maintain a tone of civility, the board members argue among themselves and the online participants weigh in constantly, burying the discussion in an avalanche of crosstalk and acrimony. What starts with soothing references to the healing properties of ginger and turmeric ends up with one student being branded "Little Miss Typhoid Mary" and announcements like this: "What do stupid people and dead people have in common? The dead people don't know they're dead either!" (Some of the biggest laughs come from the poster who only contributes a thumbs-up emoticon at regular intervals.) It's like a vintage Alan Ayckbourn farce, and Campbell-Holt and company have it worked out to the last microsecond.

Just when Eureka Day starts seeming a tad exploitative in its treatment -- we are, after all, talking about sick children -- Spector throws another curveball, revealing the devastating effects of illness on one little boy and effortlessly shifting to a debate that has terrible real-life consequences. The risks keep coming: After a petition is introduced, demanding that all students be vaccinated, Spector gives one anti-vaxxer a gorgeously written speech that reveals how her position is rooted in authentic tragedy. But just when it looks like the play is turning into a painfully even-handed debate, another character provides a stunning refutation, followed by a brutal power play that permanently upends the school's social structure.

A piece as tricky as this requires actors with true shapeshifting qualities, able to morph from sharply drawn caricatures into genuinely troubled souls. (Everyone in Eureka Day means well; that's what makes them so disastrous.) Leading the cast are two of our most consistently brilliant performers. Thomas Jay Ryan presides over the action with authority as Don, who, despite his fondness for therapeutic language and team-building exercises -- not to mention his stupefyingly opaque quotations from the thirteenth-century poet Rumi -- is terrified that the school, already on shaky financial ground, will be lost forever. Tina Benko is like an Edward Koren cartoon come to life as Suzanne, whether she is striking aggressively serene yoga poses or retreating to the sidelines like a punished child, having accidentally revealed a racist assumption; with equal facility, she lays bare the terrible logic behind Suzanne's distrust of conventional medicine. (This last speech is especially challenging: If Suzanne is so psychologically scarred by past events, why isn't it obvious from the get-go? Nevertheless, Benko makes it work.)

Also, the West Coast-based Elizabeth Carter makes a fine New York debut as Carina, new to the board and its only black member; armed with an extensive array of hilariously bemused and/or wary looks, she hardens into a powerful antagonist, offering a closing argument that proves decisive. As a single mother caught up in a tangle of personal problems, K. K. Moggie does especially well with an aria that is an extended takedown of Big Pharma and Western entitlement -- but which also is, without ever directly saying so, a confession of shame and confusion. Brian Wiles, borrowing his facial expressions from a hungry puppy and his movements from a jack-in-the-box, is ideal as Eli, a stay-at-home dad and Silicon Valley refugee, who can't help interrupting discussions with evidence of his "deeper learning" on any subject.

The rest of the production is on the same level, including John McDermott's detailed school-library setting, which has an amusingly infantilizing effect on the characters, Lux Haac's observant costumes, Grant Yeager's lighting, and Amy Altadonna's sound design. (Kate Ducey's video design plays a crucial role in that Facebook Live scene.)

As the play reaches its melancholy conclusion -- an apparent moment of togetherness that only throws into sharper relief the mayhem that has come before -- one is struck by Spector's remarkable facility for skewering his characters' affectations while allowing them their humanity. It's a pretty devastating combination and it helps to explain why Eureka Day is both loaded with laughter and armed with plenty to say about the way we live now -- which, all too often, is steeped in bad faith. --David Barbour

(30 August 2019)

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