Playing Politics

Fugard Builds an Allegory; Feiffer Deconstructs the Old Left


Less powerfully centered than Fugard's, Jules Feiffer's take on politics in A Bad Friend is more intriguingly ambiguous; it's the difference between an activist and a satirist. Any stance the latter takes he's likely to end up lampooning, which is the satirist's basic impulse. The constant shifts from sympathy to ridicule are one reason that Feiffer's greatest achievements—and they are genuinely great—tend to be in eight- or 10-panel lengths. We live in a time that has urged Feiffer into "big" achievements like novels, plays, and screenplays, but for my money his greatness is in the eight-panel strips, which rank him right up with Rowlandson, Daumier, Nast, and Beerbohm.

A Bad Friend, though it tends to fall into the discrete cartoonlike segments that make earlier Feiffer scripts a set of structural problems, is far and away the most interesting long play Feiffer has written. Its uncertainty of tone is tempered by nostalgia for its setting: the leftist families of Jewish Brooklyn in the 1950s. Feiffer knows the place and time, and evokes it in salty, affectionately recollected talk. Rose, the heroine, is a high school girl whose dogmatic mother and hapless, dominated father are doctrinaire leftists at the height of the McCarthyite persecutions, believing everything The Daily Worker says but never citing it in public. There are three strands of narrative, intriguing individually but not sitting well together: The apolitical Rose befriends an elderly painter on the esplanade, while simultaneously dodging an inquisitive but flirtatious young FBI man; her parents' relationship comes to grief when Stalin's death reveals the "doctors' plot" to have been precisely the anti-Semitic pogrom the non-Communist press claimed it was; and Rose's Uncle Morty, a small-time Hollywood screenwriter, is subpoenaed by HUAC and faces the risk of being blacklisted.

Jan Maxwell and Kala Savage in A Bad Friend: red lite
photo: Joan Marcus
Jan Maxwell and Kala Savage in A Bad Friend: red lite

Details

"MASTER HAROLD" . . . and the Boys
By Athol Fugard
Royale Theatre
242 West 45th Street
212-239-6200

A Bad Friend
By Jules Feiffer
Newhouse Theatre
Lincoln Center
212-239-6200

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The two outside strands of this laconic story contain surprise twists; Emil, the painter, is revealed to have a secret identity, and Morty, on the stand, uses unexpected tactics. Ironically, however, it's the middle story, the outcome of which is predictable from history, that carries the dramatic grip: The pivotal scene in which Jonathan Hadary, as Rose's father, reveals his loss of faith in The Party to his wife (Jan Maxwell) is the best-sustained scene Feiffer has ever written, and Maxwell's rattled playing of the vociferous tirade with which it peaks is particularly juicy.

Nevertheless, it's hard to know what Feiffer intended beyond evoking the period's crisis for the left and adumbrating some of the present's similarities to it. Rose's story has no culmination; her role in what happens to Emil is left ambiguous, and her reaction to her parents' traumatic breach goes unexplored, as do most aspects of Morty's decisive act, from its motives to its consequences for his family. Nor is there more than the vaguest sense of the left as a community of like-minded souls who took an active and sympathetic interest in each other's lives, which it certainly was in both Brooklyn and Hollywood. Even when hounded by rightists and riven by name-namings, that community never wholly vanished.

Feiffer's fascination with the minute ins and outs of personal relationships, funny and stinging as its results often are, tends to fix his characters in an isolating limbo, and Jerry Zaks's production only evokes a larger world in the marvelous between-scenes sequences (projections by Jan Hartley, sound by Aural Fixation) that juxtapose touchstone leftist songs with news photos and film clips from the red-hunt era. Zaks gets good performances, though: Besides Maxwell and Hadary, Larry Bryggman (Emil), Mark Feuerstein (Morty), and David Harbour (Fallon, the FBI man) create strong human anchors for Feiffer's lively but sometimes generalized talk. And Kala Savage, as Rose, handles her lengthy adolescent outbursts with a touching, edgy emotionality that occasionally seems monochrome only because the role is fearfully, or Feifferly, overwritten: a prolonged kvetch, in fact.

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