theater review

Theater Review: Days of Rage Gives Us 1969’s Radicals Without Actual Radicalism

From Days of Rage, at Second Stage. Photo: Joan Marcus

“Against the backdrop of an endless, unwinnable war raging halfway across the world, and a polarizing president recklessly stoking the flames of racist backlash at home, a generation of young people rises up to demand change from a corrupt political establishment.” So reads the marketing copy for Days of Rage, the new play by Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen) at Second Stage Theater under the clean-cut direction of Trip Cullman. The play takes place in Ithaca, New York, in 1969 — its title refers to the Chicago antiwar demonstrations organized by the Weathermen that October — but its goal is to get us thinking about 2018, about our own rage-filled days. It’s determined to give the lie to the seemingly daily use of the word “unprecedented” to describe the Trump epoch — this moment we’re living in, it argues, has decades upon decades of precedent. Other generations of young people have burned with righteous fury, have thrown themselves into protesting and organizing and collectivizing, have seen themselves as the revolution to end all revolutions, and have ultimately grown up to become … liberal Democrats. The play’s title comes to reflect not a specific historical protest, nor even a specific moment in time, be it 1969 or 2018, but the idea of youth itself. Like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange (before American editors and then Kubrick got their hands on it, at least), Levenson suggests that, eventually, our days of rage must pass into days of reason.

There’s some truth in that, and yet something about Levenson’s play doesn’t sit right with me. It’s a slick piece of work, a little too calculated for my taste. I left it feeling like I had just watched a careful balancing act, a story that skirted having too much of an opinion, instead contenting itself with pointing out that, Hey, these things are complicated. I don’t want a play to tell me what to believe, but I want it to believe something, and to me, Days of Rage feels like it’s hedging its bets. The passionate convictions and tangled self-delusions of its characters are presented in a pretty tidy dramatic box — even, where one major plotline is concerned, a downright formulaic one — and its historical parallel, while tonally resonant, also seems flawed in some significant ways. Even if you’re frustrated by the rhetoric of today’s radical leftists, they’re not the ones planting bombs. That would be (so far) an unhinged supporter of the party that’s actually in power. And while I found three of the play’s five characters believably insufferable, I couldn’t help feeling that the depiction of these young would-be revolutionaries — as patronizing, power-drunk, blindly hypocritical, and increasingly inhumane — might go down too easily with people who just want the kids these days to quiet down. Is it fair to bring up the Weathermen and their bombs when the public faces of today’s progressive youth movements, people like Emma González, are advocating so clearly and bravely for nonviolence? Does a “they’ll grow out of it” play actually feel right right now? Where’s the line between the potential wisdom in Levenson’s play and its own brand of self-regard?

Only one person on stage really changes during Days of Rage. That person is Jenny (Lauren Patten). She’s 20 years old, smart, serious, and massively sensitive, and — to the vast concern of her middle-class parents in Darien, Connecticut — she’s dropped out of school to devote herself to the anti-war effort and live with a collective of radical activists. They’ve got ideological ties to SDS, but none of them are students at this point: “Why do you want to organize at a place you dropped out of?” asks a newcomer to the group, and Jenny’s closest friend, Spence (Mike Faist), can only stammer, “That’s a great question,” before falling back on a list of party-line talking points. Spence and Jenny have known each other since childhood. When things get tough, they lock eyes and recite, almost ritualistically, “You’re my best friend,” “You’re my best friend, too.” It’s a secret, subversive gesture, because it acknowledges each other as special — if the third member of their trio, Quinn (Odessa Young), caught them at it, she’d probably reprimand such a brazen display of “bourgeois individualism.”

Jenny and Spence are both college dropouts who come from relatively well-off, if not necessarily well-adjusted, families; Quinn once worked at the college bookstore and has left behind a working-class upbringing to join the movement. All three are barely into their 20s, and their passionate desire to be a part of something greater than themselves daily rubs up against their instinctual need to self-define. They sleep together, because “monogamous two-person relationships [are] one of the main forms of oppression that capitalism uses against people” — but we get the sense that really it’s just Spence who gets to go back and forth between women. The apparent free-love fest is loaded with unspoken jealousies, resentments, and tensions. Nothing about these kids is as free as they’d like to believe.

In fact, they’re mentally and spiritually rigid. They’re hopped up on Marx and Engels as if socialist theory is smack — and in a way, it is. It’s filling the same hole, the hole that some people fill with religion and some with money and some, these days, with 4chan. The hole that exists instead of a solid sense of self. “There is actually no such thing as atheism,” said David Foster Wallace in a 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College. “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships.” Spence and Jenny and Quinn do it by standing on cold street corners attempting to attract converts to their specific brand of fundamentalism.

It’s slow work, and their collective is hurting on the numbers front. Two of its former members have skipped town for Ann Arbor, where the Weather Underground was founded. “They thought we needed to be more disciplined,” Jenny says, repressing a shiver at the memory of Richard and Jeff. “They would get … furious, if they thought you were being selfish … Or if you were too hung up, in terms of, you know, sex … There was a calendar. A schedule. Who was supposed to sleep with who.” If we’re not already fully clear that there’s something rotten being propagated beneath the banners of solidarity and idealism, we can’t very well miss it now. Somewhere along the way, the collective became a cult, more interested in publicly trying and excommunicating its own than in building a better world.

This insidious mission drift does nothing to put off Peggy (Tavi Gevinson), a wide-eyed young runaway who shows up in town with a duffel bag, $2,000, and a maniacal desire to join the movement. She’s one of two catalytic outsiders that Levenson throws into the mix — the other is Hal (J. Alphonse Nicholson), a young man who meets Jenny when the manager of the Sears where he works sends him outside to stop her leafletting on private property.

Though he’s only 23, Hal is the play’s only adult, and Nicholson effortlessly makes him the most sympathetic, emotionally intelligent person on stage. When Spence, Jenny, and Quinn find out that their former roommates have been involved with a failed attempt to bomb a bank in Detroit, Hal matter-of-factly speaks up: “I wonder how many people were just there trying to deposit their paychecks. Go home to their families. Black people. Brown people. Those are your people, right?” Hal is black, and as he embarks on a tentative relationship with Jenny, he finds himself surrounded by young white people who are desperate “to be in solidarity with [his] struggle” — “I hate white people,” the practically translucent Peggy avows fervently — and who do far more explaining than they do listening. Spence lectures him about the Holocaust and Quinn doesn’t hide her disgust with the fact that his younger brother willingly enlisted in the army. Both of them scoff when he tells them he voted for Humphrey. “Yeah, that’s not really how change happens, though, is it?” Spence drawls, “Voting. Elections.” When Hal next sees Jenny, his eyes are hard with irony. “They told me a lot of stuff I didn’t know,” he says coolly. “About the movement. About the collective. About monogamy. Oh, and racism. I had no idea it was even a problem before I talked to them.”

Hal opens Jenny’s eyes to the poisonous, self-defeating solipsism she’s gotten caught up in, and her process of extracting herself, of finding “other things to do about” the world’s injustices, constitutes the play’s real arc. Their story feels like the more sincere and nuanced one, but it gets subsumed inside the drama over Peggy, who blazes into the collective like a cross between Abigail from The Crucible and Twiggy. She’s a pint-size Robespierre, sowing bitterness and discontent in the guise of sympathy and honest feedback, pitting Quinn and Spence against Jenny (and slipping into bed with both of them, in moments that feel necessitated by plot rather than based on real chemistry), and more and more recklessly assuming the mantle left by Richard and Jeff — that of first among equals, the one with the power to exalt or annihilate.

Gevinson makes Peggy blank-faced and driven, a power addict whose tiny frame seems to swell as she asserts her moral reign of terror. She’s the human equivalent of the Milgram experiments, bringing out the basest instincts in everyone she touches. But she also brings out the shallowest impulses in the play. Revealing the resolution of her plotline would be a super-spoiler, but it’s the kind of twist that’s too clean and clever by half, that ultimately turns Peggy herself into less of a character than a kind of piranha that can be dropped into the plot’s fish tank and allowed to wreak just enough havoc before being conveniently netted and removed. She leaves Spence and Quinn battered and destabilized, and Levenson leaves us with the feeling that everything we’ve seen has been “a cautionary tale [about] the excesses of youth.” Cullman keeps the play moving, but doesn’t force it into real clarity about what it would like us to think or feel in its wake.

Though it’s doing its best not to be up-front about it, Days of Rage is in fact a politically moderate play, a proponent of the slow and steady road toward change. I don’t disagree that, due to human nature alone, that road may well be the only one we’re capable of treading; nevertheless, Levenson’s play left me feeling the same way I felt on November 9, 2016, when I found myself in a kitchen with a white guy of about my age, who was comfortably assuring everyone present that the arc of history bends towards justice. It just felt so easy for him to say. So impersonal. So free of risk. That same complacency is hiding inside Days of Rage, under the guise of complexity. There’s an undertone of superiority to the story, the kind that comes not from real, empathetic maturity but from a slightly older kid who’s trying to set himself apart from the slightly younger kids. While I respect the play’s implication that there will never be one revolution to end all revolutions — especially not one that embraces violence — I question the neatness of its structure and the ease with which we’re able to write off the immaturity of its central characters. I wish it had spent less time balancing on the fence, looking down at complicated issues, and more time showing me truly complicated people.

Days of Rage is at Second Stage.

Theater: Days of Rage Gives Us 1969 Radicals Sans Radicalism