Revolution Row, now playing at the Sande Shurin Theatre in New York City, starts with an interesting premise: political domination by an increasingly repressive right-wing US government provokes a civil disobedience movement inspired by a charismatic gay leader (played by Chris Gilmer with appropriate zen-like calm but little depth). Joined by an assortment of activists from other socially liberal causes, the gay refuseniks overload the federal prison system by refusing to pay their taxes, leading to a national civil crisis.
Unfortunately Edward Miller’s overlong script relies too much on speechifying, and Aaron Daniel Haber’s wooden direction robs the story of the drama at its core. Although some of the actors lack technique, tight writing and pacing might have gone a long way towards getting the most out of the enthusiastic cast. But the production leaves its actors to founder in a sea of preachy diatribes and clumsy exposition. Additionally, the Warden, who represents the religious right, is written (and portrayed by Jack Drucker) as a caricature of a sputtering right-wing zealot rather than a worthy foil for the heroic band of jailed dissidents, whose conversations consist mostly of recitations of liberal platitudes and historical commentary.
Two long interview scenes typify the play’s tendency to tell rather than show. In the second, an atheist (played by the playwright) who’s made common cause with the gay activists calmly expounds at great length on the movement’s aims and philosophy to a perky, sympathetic newswoman (the game Pamela Carden), then uses calm reason to make hay of the Warden’s bigotry. The interview scenes are staged with the interviewee facing away from the audience but shown frontally on a video monitor, and Miller, who otherwise has an awkward stage presence, displays a homespun sort of charisma on video.
JoAnn Bromley brings naturalistic grace to her scenes as the Warden’s motherly secretary, and Craig Jessup is very good as Peter, the vain pretty-boy whose character, unlike the others, grows and changes during the course of the play. Jessup’s intensity and focus hint at what a good prison drama might have been made from this premise. His character is also at the center of the shocking act of violence that serves as a climax to the action and is followed by a denouement of heartfelt farewells and song that proceed, inexplicably, as if nothing untoward had happened, leaving the viewer with a sense of disbelief and confusion that could not have been intended.
The play is subtitled “A Call To Arms,” but to be a good polemic it would need to be much more effective as a drama. To be fair, I saw the play on its first weekend and the actors were obviously still getting a feel for their lines, so some improvement might come naturally as they get more performances under their belts. But the fundamental problem is in the play itself. Character-driven drama needs characters who express themselves and communicate with each other in recognizably human ways, and not, as is too much the case here, as mere mouthpieces for causes and opinions, however noble those may be.