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stage dive

Theater Review: After the Revolution’s Hopeless Un-Hopefulness

Katharine Powell and Elliot Villar.

After the Revolution, the newest work from the young playwright Amy Herzog, arrives at a profoundly unrevolutionary caesura in American political life. Progress, after a fumbling two-year rainbow tour, is back in remission, or maybe dead — or so the current theater scene would have us believe. The cherry orchard of “change” has been cut down for firewood (suggests Richard Nelson’s That Hope Changey Thing), and progressives have turned out to be poor stewards of progress, proving themselves too blind, too selfish, too relativistic to treat their own loved ones humanely, much less construct an empathy-based society (as In the Wake teaches us). If you want to see a Yankee fist raised in the face of cynicism and mere rapine, you’ll have to clear a day for Angels in America, a play written twenty years ago.

As its sighing title suggests, After the Revolution isn’t looking to buck this dispiriting trend. Like In the Wake, the play revolves around a slightly blinkered "good-person": female, energetic, nobly intentioned and quietly entitled — cruising for a bruising, in other words. But while Wake’s speechifying Lisa is an armchair progressive, Herzog’s protagonist, Emma (Katharine Powell), is a practicing Marxist in the year 1999. She’s the foremost scion of a long line of impassioned Jewish lefties that includes her schoolteacher father, Ben (Peter Friedman), and stretches back to her recently departed grandfather, Joe Joseph, a classic mid-century American Communist. “Anybody with a beating heart and half a brain was back then,” explains his widow, Vera (the great Lois Smith). Hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Grandpa Joe refused to name names, and was ruined and martyred in that moment. Emma, a crusading young lawyer fresh out of school, has organized a fund around his name/brand to work for the exoneration of a present-day icon, Mumia Abu-Jamal, the real-life accused cop killer and longtime death-row cause celebre. So when Ben belatedly reveals to his daughter that sainted Grandpa Joe was more than a purely “ideological communist” — that he was, in fact, a spy for Stalin in the forties, passing military secrets to the USSR — Emma’s world quickly flies to pieces. Her god is bloodied, her fund is now named after a traitor, and — come to think of it, is ol’ Mumia even innocent, after all? “I’m trying to surround the situation,” she says, deploying the tactical language of her post-everything generation, and she certainly does seem to have herself surrounded.

Herzog’s painted herself into a bit of a corner, too. Apparently drawing on her own family history, she’s set a play among a family of latter-day American Marxists, a group so marginal in the American mind as to be mythical. (The only people left in this country who still believe in Marxists are Tea Partiers — and Playwrights Horizons doesn’t seem to be church-busing them in.) “Free Mumia,” whatever its actual import for social justice, is a cause so calcified, so nostalgic, you’re more likely to find it on an Urban Outfitters T-shirt than on anyone’s Facebook “Interests” page. Most problematic is the play’s driving crisis, le affaire du Grandpa Joe: Herzog is working overtime to convince us that the Past Isn’t Past, to prove to the world at large — and to her characters — that something is at stake. That’s part of the point, of course. More than once, Emma’s asked why it even matters that her grandfather was a spy for an empire that no longer exists — is it really worth ruining her relationship with her father and abandoning the cause she’s built her young life around? Emma’s indignation goes deeper than politics: She’s upset that she was lied to by her father, and her reaction is that of a wounded child. Once again, the personal trumps the political, as it must: Father-daughter detente is gradually, conventionally achieved, ideals are sacrificed, and partisans lowered. Only Grandma Vera, the oldest ranking leftist on deck — rapidly losing her hearing and her, whaddyacallit, vocabulary — is unamused. For her, Emma’s inability to comprehend her grandfather’s choices, and her eagerness to apologize for them, amount to betrayal, treason. Where Emma sees a new opportunity for dialogue, Vera sees retreat. She’ll call it change, but she won’t go further: “I’ve lived too long to call it progress.”

Vera, as incarnated by Smith, is the show’s most pungent and vivid creation; the rest of the play feels almost like an excuse to get her back onstage. (She’s based on an actual Herzog family member and has figured in the playwright’s work before.) Whether she’s dispensing half-lucid wisdom to Emma (“You know, your father hoped you would be a lesbian,” she sighs, disappointed) or darkly staking out the limits of her old orthodoxy (“A lot of what you hear about Stalin in this country is propaganda,” she warns, when the discussion of her late husband’s espionage turns sour), Vera is the starkest dramatic presence onstage. Next to her, “a young person with the courage of her convictions” is quickly revealed (and reviled) as a kind of high-functioning nincompoop, whose more pragmatic, camera-ready praxis may prove incrementally more effective in a hopelessly incremental world, but whose soul is a smudge. That’s a pity: This play is about Emma, first and foremost, and Emma is, first and foremost, a blubberer and a bore. Powell can’t find much in her beyond a persistent, low-level hysteria, and the kind of endless capacity for disillusionment that characterizes all bad protagonists. Her deteriorating relationship with her boyfriend Miguel (Elliot Villar) is of no interest whatsoever —do we really need a peep into Emma’s romantic life to understand the all-too -familiar mechanics of how a newly soured young post-ideologue pushes her loved ones away? As Ben, her father, Peter Friedman (late of Circle Mirror Transformation) makes more headway: Few actors working today can evoke the quick fury and cold terror of the middle-aged male with more humor, bite, and pathos. Herzog writes her most honest, uninhibited scenes for Ben, his second wife, Mel (the wonderful Mare Winningham), and Vera. Of course, all these characters are at a careful generational remove. “It’s 1999,” Ben announces, in a portentous toast that concludes the first scene, “Clinton is a big-business president, the poor are getting poorer, racial divides are deepening, we’re dropping bombs in the Balkans ... We’re about to see a new millennium and it’s hard to imagine things getting much worse.” This gets a rueful laugh. There’s genuine rue in After the Revolution, but, like other recent shows of its type, it suffers from the very disease it diagnoses: a culturewide inability to articulate a vision. It hides in 1999, in a well-appointed living room of irrelevant middle-class Marxists, in the pale pink greenroom of history, waiting for ... what? For whom? One thing’s certain: It ain’t Lefty.

Photo: Joan Marcus