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Theatre in Review: Heroes of the Fourth Turning (Playwrights Horizons)

Zoë Winters, Jeb Kreager, Julia McDermott. Photo: Joan Marcus.

You can safely call Will Arbery one of the bravest playwrights around. In Heroes of the Fourth Turning -- not a title one would wish on any play -- he has populated the stage with conservative Catholic intellectuals, characters whose ideas and inclinations are -- especially in these polarized times -- likely to be greeted by many in the audience with the warmth usually reserved for nails on a blackboard. They're the kind of people who subscribe to the journal First Things, take Pat Buchanan and Steve Bannon seriously, and vastly prefer the previous two popes to the incumbent. That the playwright makes this garrulous, opinionated crew so engaging -- and their concerns so relevant -- is a mark of his considerable imagination and empathy. This new offering at Playwrights Horizons has its awkward moments, but it brings us into fresh and unfamiliar dramatic territory.

Everyone in Heroes of the Fourth Turning is associated with Transfiguration College, a fictitious liberal arts institution in Wyoming. It is late at night, the tail end of a party to celebrate the installation of a new college president; among the revelers are three alumnae in their late twenties. Once fast friends, they have followed vastly different paths. Teresa lives in Brooklyn, writes for a conservative blog, and is working on a book of essays; she is one of those terrifyingly articulate rapid-fire human repeater rifles spawned by Internet culture, her arguments buttressed by her precise and powerful way with words. (These characters aren't know-nothings who use the Bible as a literal field guide to life. You may be discomfited by their ideas, but you can't say they aren't literate or systematic thinkers.)

As Teresa Zoë Winters mows down her opposition with relish. Indeed, to her falls the task of explaining the play's title. With the fervor of a hard-core Marxist explicating dialectical materialism, she describes history as marching through four stages, or turnings: High is when society is secure and prosperous. ("It's like. The 50s," she says, in her rat-a-tat, highly caffeinated way of speaking.) Awakening happens when citizens ask too many questions, leading to such unwelcome developments as hippies and Vatican II. Unraveling causes society to break up into increasingly hostile tribes, with all sides hardening their positions. Crisis manifests itself in major social traumas -- like, say, the Civil War -- that, when the smoke clears, ultimately brings us back another High era. Needless to say, Teresa is positively salivating for the onset of Crisis, so certain is she that it will usher in a halcyon period of economic prosperity and spiritual flowering. The speech is a dazzling achievement, crystalline in its clarity even at its most untethered to reality, and Winters delivers it with the stunning fluency of the true believer.

In truth, Teresa frightens even her close friends a little, as not all of them are ready for the massive, possibly violent, culture war that she so cheerily expects. Justin, a strong, silent former Marine, largely keeps his own counsel, at one point offering his kooky pitch for a children's book (The Grateful Acre), which takes the doctrine of acceptance of God's will to bizarre extremes. A proponent of the Benedict Option -- the idea proposed by the writer Rod Dreher that truly orthodox Christians should retire from the modern world and live in fruitful isolation -- he can come across as the gentlest of souls, in all probability haunted by memories of his military service. He can also send a chill through the room by noting, quietly but with iron conviction, "I just think proximity to LGBT is a threat to Christian children and families. Exposure makes you porous to infection."

In one of the most attention-getting speeches -- and in this play that's saying something -- he dismisses contemporary culture in a single swipe, saying, "So these nice young liberal people are blinded by a system that distracts them from true moral questions and refocuses their attention onto fashionable and facile questions of identity and choice: Which gender do you want to be today? How much sex can you have today? How many babies do you want? And how do you want them to look? Which is really all part of a larger ideological system that is rooted in an evil, early-twentieth-century quote-unquote progressive trend towards quote-unquote perfection, eugenics, and crypto-racism, endorsed by Margaret Sanger, an American eugenics system which persists, which wants to eliminate anything unclean or imperfect, including black babies and Down syndrome babies, and create a sterilized world based around state-mandated pleasure and narcissism. These are just facts, look it up y'all." From individual sexual freedom to a holocaust in one hundred and thirty words; that's quite an achievement. Jeb Kreager plays Justin with an understatement that includes more than a hint of danger.

Then there's Kevin, once best friend to Jeb and Teresa, now stuck in a dead-end life, yearning for a girlfriend, and swimming in booze. A slacker who has no idea how to grow up, he will, before the night is over, throw himself at both Teresa and Emily, neither of whom wants his attentions. Emotionally detached from his religion and torn by loneliness and free-floating desire, he wonders why Catholicism is "obsessed with telling me not to have sex," a state of affairs that, paradoxically, has left him addicted to Internet porn. John Zrdojeski brings this spiritual sad sack to shambolic life, as he staggers around, begging the others for a way out of his despair.

Also on hand is Emily, daughter of two faculty members and a devotee of Flannery O'Connor, who suffers from an undefined illness that leaves her in constant pain. Emily, who escaped Transfiguration to attend college elsewhere, harbors a tiny seed of skepticism that comes to the fore when she is unhappily caught in a debate with Teresa about abortion rights. Before she took to her bed, Emily worked as a counselor, urging poor, pregnant young women to have their babies, but she has no stomach for Teresa's arguments, which are grounded entirely in the thrill of debate. She tenaciously responds to Teresa's scorched-earth tactics, observing that she knew women who terminated their pregnancies because they were sick, starving, battered, or otherwise unable to face motherhood. Even as Teresa is busily working the word "murder" into each sentence, it is obvious that, thanks to her condition, Emily has an empathy entirely missing in her theory-ridden friends. Julia McDermott makes palpable the character's physical and spiritual discomfort while quietly signaling her independence of mind

Arbery, who grew up among people with similar worldviews, sees them with deep understanding, especially in terms how often they fail to live up to their ideals. (Teresa uses cocaine; Kevin can't stop masturbating.) That Heroes of the Fourth Turning unfolds during the summer of 2017 adds an extra note of relevance: The characters' search for a society modeled on St. Augustine's City of God has ended in the reductio ad absurdum of the Trump Administration, an irony not lost on some of them. As the night wears on, there is plenty of drama -- in theological battles, of course, but also in a hushed-up sex scandal, the crushing of one character's secret yearning, and, most of all, in the appearance of Gina, the new college president and Emily's mother, a sunny, maternal presence who, without breaking a sweat, can devastate her acolytes with withheld approval. (In a relatively brief appearance, she more or less lays waste to the stage, without ever really raising her voice.) She is portrayed authoritatively by Michele Pawk, who highlights Gina's weary understanding of the disappointments of contemporary politics: A onetime Buchanan supporter who instinctively distrusts the current president, she -- unlike Teresa -- sees no glorious future on the horizon.

Arbery has described Heroes of the Fourth Turning as a composition for multiple voices and what strange and unsettling music they make. Danya Taymor's direction is marked by her fine handling of the cast, but she might have done more to curb some of the play's excesses: It begins with a silent sequence, involving the killing of a deer, which bears little relevance to what follows and could easily have been cut. This is also true of a series of ear-splitting sound effects, courtesy of designer Justin Ellington, which, like the faint rattle of gunshots in the distance, hint at sinister developments that seem left over from an earlier draft. Furthermore, members of the clergy are strangely absent from this Catholic bastion of learning; no priest or nun is ever mentioned. And, at two hours and ten minutes without an intermission, the piece is simply too long; the playwright might yet consider murdering some of his darlings, gripping as they are.

The design is only partially successful, as well. Laura Jellinek's backyard setting seems effective, although for long stretches one can barely see it, so dim is Isabella Byrd's lighting; more than once I yearned to see the actors' faces more clearly. Sarafina Bush's costumes exhibit a clear understanding of the characters and their differences, however.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning certainly has its weaknesses, but Arbery presents with characters we haven't seen before and gives them arias that are dense with ideas, rife with contradictions, and almost feverish with passion. The play climaxes in a furious, scalding speech by Emily that reveals, in a gut-wrenching way, the limits of living inside this entirely closed intellectual system. Whatever one thinks of these characters, Arbery has given them a fair hearing. And, Benedict Option or not, he persuasively argues that they exert more influence in today's world than many would like to admit. As he surely understands, belief can be the most seductive thing of all. --David Barbour


(8 October 2019)

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