If there’s any reason to see As We Speak, an otherwise unbearable new play by John Patrick Bray, it’s to see how theater is slowly beginning to adapt to the Web 2.0 era. It seems virtually impossible to dramatize a generation who grasps their laptops like respirators, but as liberal grad student Noreen, Alyson Brock assumes a pose in the first act that people of my generation are all familiar with: hunched over a tiny screen, unable to turn away, willingly ignoring one’s surroundings, and unable to function in the world off the web. Minor technical difficulties aside, director Tom Berger and projection designer David Bengali succeed in maintaining an effective staging of this otherwise dull act, and sound designer Henry Akona keeps attention constantly tuned in.
There’s little else to redeem As We Speak, a play with a script, performances, and ambition that all reek of amateurism. The script itself has very little if anything to bring to the table. Though the director’s note speaks of multiple edits, somehow lines like “Go to Hawaii, wherever you can drive to” evaded the red pen. Attempts at humor unfailingly miss their target, and the balance between realism and fantasy, both in actions and realistic human emotions, never comes close to harmony.
The basic weaknesses of the script speak to nothing of the problems of the play’s premise. As We Speak is a present-day adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here, which imagined a dystopian fascist America. The novel was written in 1935, a time when major world democracies were falling into totalitarianism with terrifying frequency. It seemed that the fundamental viability of democracy was breaking down, a concept that was also addressed by Brave New World, 1984, and even Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Yet, after fascism was defeated in World War II, all future attempts to revive Lewis’ novel seemed spurious. The idea of a totalitarian America was intellectually alluring, but subsequent adaptations usually had to resort to science fiction or alternate histories to make the scenario remotely plausible. Most successful attempts, such as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, attained believability by reversing the results of World War II.
Bray, however, tries to update the premise to Dick Cheney’s America, post-9/11 and post-Katrina. Bray could be forgiven for the bad timing of the play, coming after an election that trounced fear-based conservative politics, had he dealt with those fears in any sort of interesting way. But Bray treats a fascist American uprising as a narrative inevitability that ultimately make the play simply boring. At the production I saw, not a single audience member clapped at intermission. I can assure you that was not due to awe.
Given little to work with, the cast can be forgiven for its uninspired performances. As Noreen’s Minutemen ex-husband Chad, Michael Littner doesn’t convince at all in portraying his conflicted loyalties. This results from his absurd characterization by Bray as well as the actor’s own lack of effort. The Greek Chorus of journalists is farcical, but not in a funny way, and tough guy Case Aiken isn’t all that tough. What none of the actors can be forgiven for is their lack of ability to project. It’s a small theater, but even so I could barely hear them half the time.
How much you’re willing to tolerate As We Speak depends on how willing you are to believe the title of the Sinclair Lewis book the play is based on. There are certainly some who believe America can devolve into fascism, and some may even believe it already has with the Bush presidency. For sure, there are also fascist parallels to be found in the Minutemen and Patriot Act. But the play’s 2005 perspective clearly reduces its impact. De Toqueville’s notion of a self-correcting democracy has proven to be stronger than even most liberals thought possible. Whether or not you believe America could ever fall into full-fledged totalitarianism and martial law—despite what some may think, the Bush presidency ain’t Nazi Germany—it’s hard to deny that there are institutions in place and core ideals preventing that from occurring. If there weren’t, we’d currently be talking about a Brownback presidency.
As We Speak by John Patrick Bray. Directed by Tom Berger; Costume Design by Erin Smiley; Projections Design by David Bengali; Set Design by Jack Blacketer; Lighting Design by Tim Kaufman; Sound Design by Henry Akona; Fight Choreography by Kathryn Lawson. Photos by Leigh Celentano.
Starring Alisyn Brock (Noreen), Anthony Rand (Travis), Michael Littner (Chad), Michelle Rabbani (Jennifer), Michael Bertolini (Harrison), Rajesh Bose (Stanz), Cary Hite (Man 1, Nov. 8-9), Kyle-Steven Porter (Man 1, Nov. 7, 10-23), Case Aiken (Man 2), Kathryn Lawson (Woman 1), and Sarah Engelke (Woman 2).
As We Speak runs through November 23 at the 14th Street Y Theatre (344 E. 14th St.). Tickets are available at www.smarttix.com or by calling 212-868-4444.