theater review

Theater Review: Deep in Red America (But Not at the Diner) in Heroes of the Fourth Turning

From Heroes of the Fourth Turning, at Playwrights Horizons. Photo: Joan Marcus

Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning is so frighteningly well written, it’s hard to write about. It’s the rare play where standing and picking up your shit and shuffling down steps and going outside—especially onto 42nd Street—immediately after feels like a kind of violence. You’re not ready for it yet. You’re still in Arbery’s world — murky yet lit by lightning, lyrical and scary, brave and terribly gentle. Coming out of the whole thing is like waking to a bucket of water thrown in your face. But even that jolt feels right in its way, because Heroes is a kind of nightmare. Arbery, whose thrillingly destabilizing Plano got a much deserved extended run at the Connelly in April, is a virtuoso of dream language and logic. He’s an unostentatious surrealist—a Magritte, not a Dali—rigorous and playful and full of love for his subjects, even when, as in Heroes, those subjects are themselves fraught with confusion, aggression, and fearful, fearsome indoctrination.

Perhaps trying to get out ahead of a prickly response from progressive New York audiences, the dramaturgical materials that surround the play and the artistic director’s program note emphatically do not ask us to empathize with Arbery’s characters. Instead, we’re asked to consider, critically, the empathizing impulse. “Oh don’t with the empathy,” snaps one of those characters, Teresa, a ravening idealogue in a chic white jumpsuit. “Liberals are empathy addicts. Empathy empathy empathy. Empathy is empty.” Teresa (Zoë Winters), like everyone in Heroes, is a zealous Catholic conservative. One might, sans empathy, call her rabid. She’s back in Wyoming—where she attended the small, intensely intellectual and intensely faith-based Transfiguration College—to celebrate the appointment of a beloved professor, Gina Presson (Michele Pawk), to the school’s presidency. Arbery’s play takes place in the wee hours, after all the toasts have been drunk, when anyone with their shit together has already gone home. But Teresa’s still hanging around in Justin’s (Jeb Kreager) backyard, along with Emily (Julia McDermott), Dr. Presson’s daughter, who speaks with a lilt and walks with a cane, doubled over in pain from what seems to be Lyme disease; and Kevin (John Zdrojeski), who’s full of whiskey and terror, and whose brain is short-circuiting from twenty-eight years of sexless self-loathing.

As they await their mentor’s arrival, the quartet of former students does what you do when you’re the last ones at the party, what intellectual misfits and social stragglers have done with free time and alcohol ever since Chekhov and surely long before, too: philosophize. Arbery prefaces his play with two definitions for the word “fugue”: first, a musical composition that passes a theme amongst a number of voices; second, the psychological phenomenon — “a period of loss of awareness of one’s identity, often coupled with flight from one’s usual environment.” Heroes plays gorgeously on both meanings, braiding together Jeb’s staunch, taciturn bass with Emily’s fluttering soprano, Kevin’s bleating, staccato tenor with Teresa’s belting, prestissimo alto — and building towards a wild, dissociative climax that makes the play feel like one of those horror theme park rides where you’re stuck in an elevator plummeting towards the ground. There’s a real (or surreal) fugue state coming in Heroes, but there’s also the softer, more expansive sense that a night like this—where people stand around in a haze of drink and ideas in a town that used to be theirs but isn’t anymore—creates its own kind of blurring of identities: who we were with who we used to be with who we’re still, despite everything, aspiring and failing to be.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be so incredibly bracing (it certainly shouldn’t be so unusual) to encounter a play with characters as fully formed, as fleshy and knowable, as Arbery’s — but it is. The sneaky, simple brilliance of Heroes of the Fourth Turning is that it’s not actually about its characters’ talking points at all. It’s about them. It’s not shouting; it’s listening. That’s how it sidesteps the empathy headache while remaining exquisitely humane. We may be horrified by Teresa’s tirades against abortion, her withering disdain for “weakness” of any kind (especially in men), and her avid assurance that “There’s a war coming,” but the point is not for us to feel our way into her perspective. It’s for us to see her — and Kevin, and Emily, and Justin. Arbery’s characters are so specific—and his ear for their particular pathologies, patterns, and pains so sharp—that the production invigorates us theatrically even as it chills us with its chorus of arguments, phobias, and theories. It has us leaning forward from the first moment, doubly so because Isabella Byrd’s lighting design is wonderfully dark. An asymmetrical cone of back porch light is all the characters have to work in — when they venture out into the reaches of Justin’s backyard, they dissolve into shadow. Even in the light, you’ve got to strain a little to see them. It’s naturalism that’s also something more: Darkness does surround these people, and their efforts to dig their heels in and hold onto what they’ve been taught is the light only makes the shadows thicken. “I feel like a disease, Dr. Presson,” admits the untethered Kevin, drunk enough to swerve into dangerous territory, somehow both fundamentally innocent and blindly self-pitying in his confession. But if nothing else, honest about the darkness.

“How did I become a virus?” reads another epigraph to the play, taken from lyrics by the singer Anohni. “Hopelessness — I feel the hopelessness.” Only a few blocks away, Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play is using the very same language of infection to look through another lens on inherited wounds in the national psyche. In Heroes—which puts the people we adamantly protest that we do not need another Washington Post expose about center stage—Arbery works like both poet and scientist. Heroes seems to me to be deep in conversation with that model of doctor-writers, Chekhov, whose “clinical humanity”—as the biologist and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee calls it—Arbery has inherited. In a way, the play is a kind of darkly warped, contemporary American Cherry Orchard: It’s a portrait of a dying species, a self-proclaimed intellectual and spiritual aristocracy flailing as their claim on the earth and their sense of self dissipate. There’s no sympathy implied for these sufferers, no implication that theirs is a world worth saving, but there’s a moment of moral silence in the face of their suffering all the same. There’s also—like Chekhov’s breaking string—a terrifying noise that sounds repeatedly during the play. Justin says it’s his generator misfiring, but it sounds like the gates of Hell opening up, and when it strikes, every character doubles over like devils in torment, hearing the sound of their own sad, poisoned souls.

Whether it’s Justin’s Lady Macbeth–like anxiety over a spot of blood on his porch where he skinned a deer; or Kevin’s drunken certainty of his own spiritual rot; or Teresa’s shock-and-awe offensive of Bannonite hatred meeting Brooklynite hipness; or Emily’s crippling pain — Kevin is right: They are all sick. And the marvelous scene in which their patron saint finally arrives is a dizzying deep dive into why. Pawk’s glowing Dr. Presson fancies herself an alma mater. She’s country-club-coiffed, well-spoken and professional, but she’s also prouder than anything of her eight C-sections — her commitment to giving “[her] own body away to something higher” and “staying open to as many [children] as God wants to give.” She is, at once, benevolent and intelligent, and a builder of broken human beings. Her urbane, old-school sensibilities are affronted by what’s become of Teresa—who gets the same high from rageful rhetoric as she gets from cocaine—but she herself is the commander, Teresa only the soldier. She is one of the well-meaning architects of her protégé’s war.

All five actors are ablaze in Danya Taymor’s swift, measured, deliciously tense production. The fearless Winters gives Teresa a Joan of Arc’s zeal for all the most appalling ideas. Deep menace lurks in the square, outwardly gentlemanly mass of Kreager’s Justin (the gun that rides around in the back of his jeans throughout the play, raising the stakes at every moment through its sheer presence, is a brilliant inversion on the Chekhovian trope). McDermott’s Emily combines tenderness with tenacity and sparks of electric anger as she hovers closer to empathy—to its gifts and its dangers—than any of her fellows. Pawk is exactly a mother you know, and whom you might love, and whose most cherished beliefs feel like the most awful violence, though all she preaches is love. (Arbery’s parents taught at a Catholic college in Wyoming and held Republican rallies at their home while he was growing up.) And Zdrojeski’s tall, collapsing frame is shot through with chaotic despair as Kevin.

“If there’s a war coming, then why is Catholicism all about sex?” he moans in the face of Teresa’s avowal that they—their whole generation—are, by birth and fate, heroes. (She’s taken her wild-eyed grandiosity from the book by Neil Howe and William Strauss that Arbery references in his title.) Kevin’s howls of incel desperation aren’t simply pitiful or funny: They’re his way of putting a finger on the fact that he and his fellow “heroes” have built their lives on repression and sublimation. They have been taught, in the language of faith and love, how to fear and despise. They’ve turned their shame at their own desires, their own eccentricities and weaknesses, inside-out to the point where it has become armor — no longer defensive but offensive, a kind of holy hubris. They are articulate, but their bodies and souls are screaming. And in Arbery’s stunning play, even in the rush of articulation, we always feel the scream.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning is at Playwrights Horizons through November 17.

This is my final review as the full-time theater critic for New York Magazine and I’m sitting in an apartment in Cleveland, where tomorrow I’ll begin directing a play — a hard, strange, sad, funny, scary, vexatious play, one that probably can’t be solved. That I don’t aspire to solve. An old play that fascinates and unsettles me, that I believe might have something to say about who we are, here, now, today.

My preoccupations as a director have, for the past two years, informed my criticism. I’m interested in courage and cowardice, in how those manifest both in content and in form, both within the story of a given piece and within the network of decisions that lead to its final physical presentation. I’m interested in what makes theater uniquely and inimitably itself — in what sets it apart from other media and keeps it from becoming, God save us, simply another form of “content.” I’m interested in theater’s distinctive access to realms beyond the veil — the other worlds that touch our own, be they framed in the discourse of psychology, the supernatural, or the divine. In an essay on Macbeth, the critic Harold Goddard wrote, “Behind the visible world lies another world, immeasurably wider and deeper…. As a face now reveals and now conceals the life behind it, so the visible world now hides this other world as does a wall, now opens on it as does a door.” At its best, theater locates and accesses those doors, draws them like another Harold, with his purple crayon, in thin air.

I’m stepping away from full-time criticism to pursue more directing, but there’s no disentangling the two pursuits for me now. The Los Angeles critic Sylvie Drake calls criticism “directing backwards.” That makes sense to me, but so does a definition that doesn’t emphasize the idea of criticism as, necessarily, a kind of dismantling. It is that, but at its best, it builds too. Critic and director must both articulate a vision and relate it to the wider world. Both are authors, whether of an argument or an event. Both must contextualize; both must reveal themselves in the work; both must dream the future of the form they love. I’m off now to a different kind of dreaming.

*A version of this article appears in the October 14, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Deep in Red America with Heroes of the Fourth Turning