Brecht: Call and Respond from New Light Theater Project opens with almost excruciating tension. This trio of related one-act plays commences with Bertholt Brecht’s The Jewish Wife, a character study of a Jewish woman married to a gentile in Nazi Germany on the eve of the Holocaust. Contemporary playwrights Arlene Hutton and Kristin Idaszak respond to Brecht’s evocation of quiet despair with their own short plays sharing the themes of exile and belonging.
The three pieces make a neat temporal progression, from Europe’s not-so-distant fascist past, through the present-day America of Hutton’s Sunset Point, and into a climate-dystopian near future with Idaszak’s Self Help in the Anthropocene. The sequence begins with the triptych’s ur-figure, Brecht’s Judith (Susan Lynskey), packing a suitcase with exaggerated calm and laborious slowness. What should go into the bag? Which clothes? What about this framed photo of a man, presumably her husband? Time stretches by, painfully tautly, until she picks up the telephone and begins making arrangements for her absence. Then things start to become clear.
Under Jerry Heymann’s silken direction, Judith’s steady, dignified demeanor begins bit by bit to crack. We learn she’ll be gone for a few weeks. But no – it’s a few months. Yet no again – can she ever return? Does she really have friends in Amsterdam? Or is this trip a desperate flight to anywhere that seems safe? Will she ever again see her husband (Michael Aguirre), whose career (along with her own life) she hopes to save by absenting herself from his life?
Modern-day antisemitism emerges in Sunset Point, less violent (so far, anyway) but, like other prejudices and racisms, still terribly troublesome. Celebrated old novelist Henson (Gerry Bamman) returns from a conference greeted by his much younger fiancée Rachel (Lindsay Brill), herself just back from a trip to help her mother after surgery. Judith’s suitcase from The Jewish Wife has doubled – both Henson and Rachel are on the move, and in more ways than one.
The main plot point takes too long to arrive – I was wondering impatiently why I should care about these characters – but when it comes it’s a surprise to us as much as to Rachel. Without consulting her, Henson has purchased a summer home for them in the titular club-like community. The house used to be in his family, he’s sentimentally attached to it, but he’s buying it back mainly because it comes with a cabin in the woods ideal for his attempt to break a years-long bout of writer’s block.
He’s all but indifferent when Rachel points out the club’s traditional and enduring antisemitism and asserts that it won’t accept his new Jewish wife.
The key point isn’t Rachel’s awareness, but Henson’s selfish cluelessness. Bamman makes this randy old goat effectively self-absorbed, while Brill’s Rachel is a good contemporary analogue of the assimilated German Jews of Brecht’s milieu. Though not subject to state-sponsored murder or ghettoization, she feels the full weight of prejudice even from a distance. (This rang true for me, who grew up in a town with a large Jewish population but also a golf-course country club well known for its unspoken no-Jews policy.)
The two suitcases on the kitchen floor drive home the parallel between past and present, as the couple talks around each other, using the same words in entirely different senses.
The pace ratchets up with a knockout turn by Lucy Lavely in Idaszak’s Self Help in the Anthropocene. Like Brecht’s play it’s mostly a monologue. But Joy (Lavely) is facing a different kind of danger and exile, in a near-future totalitarian state spawned by the chaos of climate crisis. Worrying over her wife’s lateness in returning home, Joy is doing something consummately personal: de-cluttering her life according to the precepts of a Marie Kondo-like self-help guru.
Sorting through her possessions, she discards those that don’t “bring her joy” – which turns out to be nearly everything. Will her unnamed wife never get home? Will they be herded into a refugee camp? Is Joy even “all there”?
As she picks through avocado slicers and empty prescription bottles, the answers are less important than the trenchant writing and Lavely’s monster performance. Idaszak isn’t afraid to give Joy a self-conscious rather than a strictly “internal” monologue, one in which the character explains things for our benefit. This layer of artificiality works because the script, character, and situation are all larger than life to just the right degree, perfectly tuned to resonate with the real world we all know and the real darker and better sides of human nature. Credit must also go to Heymann for drawing from Lavely this marvelous embodiment of despair kept just at bay.
It isn’t a flawless production. Sunset Point takes too long to get to its meat; its characters aren’t interesting enough in themselves to make for compelling theater over the length of time that elapses before we know why we should care about them. For that matter, the production’s interpretation of The Jewish Wife itself is such a slow build that some may lack patience for it.
But the three plays’ accumulated weight and smartly realized parallels, wrapping up with a bang with Joy’s glacier-melting monologue, add up to an evening of firm substance and screeching contemporary relevance. Brecht: Call and Respond runs through 15 February at the Paradise Factory in NYC. Purchase tickets online or call 630-632-1459.