Three generations of an American Marxist family clash in this gripping comedy-drama from stellar new talent Amy Herzog. Developed at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, it has landed at Playwrights Horizons with a bang.
It’s 1999. Just out of law school, brilliant young Emma Joseph (perfectly named, and played with a flourish by Katharine Powell) helms a fund aimed at freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal. (For those just joining the party, or the Party: “Free Mumia” shirts and posters were ubiquitous at the time; protesters asserted that the Black Panther had been hustled to a murder conviction and death sentence because of his activism. Abu-Jamal remains in prison.)
Emma’s cause reflects the spirit of her far-left progenitors, but underlying tensions bubble to the surface when she discovers that her nervous father Ben (Peter Friedman) has kept from her a secret about his own father: the old man, a Marxist who had stood up to the McCarthy witch hunts in 1953 and suffered the consequences, had also, it turns out, not been entirely forthcoming about his past.
We can (and do) laugh at Emma’s reference to “the insidious brand of leftist racism in my family,” recognizing that cultural mores change even when political convictions pass from one generation to the next. We can (and do) laugh at Ben’s hyper-P.C. pleasure in Emma’s taste in men (Latino) and his wish for one of his daughters to have turned out gay. But we can’t laugh when she cuts him off and won’t pick up the phone, forcing him to leave increasingly anguished messages on her answering machine. This sequence allows for some excellent drama, but begs the question of why she is so cruel to him. True, it does feel to her like a real betrayal—she has, after all, dedicated her life to the fund named after her sainted grandfather—but I didn’t quite believe she’d refuse to speak to her bruised father for so long.
That’s just a small quibble; the play is elegantly written, concisely directed by Carolyn Cantor, and superbly acted by an ensemble that includes Mare Winningham, David Margulies, and Lois Smith as the indomitable, unreconciled Marxist matriarch Vera, whose exchanges with young Emma are wonderfully uncomfortable. Clint Ramos’s set perfectly captures how these politically engaged but financially comfortable intellectuals would live—modern political art on the walls, everything immaculate, but unfashionable furniture quietly demonstrating that where they put their bodies has never been uppermost on their minds.
Herzog is a brave enough writer not to feel she has to wrap things up neatly. A funny and touching father-daughter scene near the end shows there’s a good chance for personal healing. But as Emma persists in partially repudiating her grandfather, old Vera won’t change her ways, insisting Emma couldn’t have known what the pressures were like in those days, and leaving us with the last word: “Progress? No.”
It’s an interesting and slightly off-putting way to end. “Progressive,” after all, is the word those on the left have substituted for the co-opted “liberal.” But Herzog is not, I think, directly commenting on the political situation of any particular time, including the present (today’s climate would probably render someone like Ben apoplectic). She’s exploring the nature of family, of ideals, and of how they interact and which takes precedence when. It’s rare that we get such a close look at people with such firm convictions and such clear human and philosophical reasoning behind them, right or wrong.
Yet the playwright also draws a convincing portrait of a very specific type of family that took shape in a particular way under the political winds of a particular time and place. Many coastal liberals, the Jewish ones anyway, will recognize these characters from their own families. Those who don’t will perhaps appreciate even more the window the playwright has opened for us on a less explored but equally fascinating facet of the “greatest generation” and what their struggles have meant for later times.
After the Revolution runs through Nov. 28 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons.
Photos by Joan Marcus. 1. Lois Smith and Katharine Powell. 2. Peter Friedman and Mare Winningham.
Special AFTER THE REVOLUTION offer for Blogcritics readers!
Order by November 9 with code ARGR and tickets are only:
· $45 (reg. $55) for ALL performances Oct. 29 – Nov. 28
HOW TO ORDER:
· Order online at www.playwrightshorizons.org. Use code APGR.
· Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily)
· Present a printout of this blog post to the Ticket Central box office at 416 West 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily).
*A limited number of $40 discounted tickets will be available for purchase. Subject to availability. Valid only in select rows.