Theater archives

Playing Politics


Politics is easy, if you’re not holding or running for office: You simply say what you believe, and act accordingly. The two hard parts are knowing what you believe and choosing the action that will best further your belief. Similar problems—inner doubts and tactical dilemmas—dog the making of political plays. The chief solution is to eschew propaganda: Believe what you believe, and let the characters speak as they will. (This is what makes the theater such a problem for right-wing Americans, who fundamentally don’t believe in free speech.) But how you channel their verbal impulses into a form that audiences will watch with interest turns the challenge into a vast sea of temptations. No wonder political drama, of any quality, is such a scarce item; no wonder, too, that it often reduces to the merest agitprop or the most banal feel-good generalization.

Athol Fugard, when apartheid ruled South Africa, employed one of the slyest ways to dodge both banality and sloganeering: allegory. Summarize many of his plays and you’ll find yourself telling a parable. (“A white man and a black man, half-brothers, share a house they’ve inherited . . . “) At the same time, Fugard never ignored either political or personal realities; the shift from their realms to the allegorical kept his audiences alert. He also had the honesty to implicate himself in these extended metaphors, which gives them an extra charge of personal anguish. “MASTER HAROLD” . . . (1982), though still powerfully affecting, is one of his less transportable mixtures of this type, from a time when the anti-apartheid movement was having a distinct effect on South African policies and change was in the air. A cunning lesson in how ruling-class children get mistaught to channel their individual sorrows into racist solidarity, it has an adolescent antihero who clearly suggests a sardonic self-portrait: a budding writer, all nerves, barely able to cope with a pair of (offstage) parents whose rocky relations make home life fairly grueling. (The father, crippled and alcoholic, evokes a similar offstage figure in Fugard’s early, nonpolitical Hello and Goodbye.)

Young Hally’s only refuge is the tea shop his mother manages, where the two black male employees he’s known since childhood make a pair of nurturing elder brothers, like same-sex surrogate parents, guiding Hally through his storms of oedipal conflict while his mother dances attendance on his demanding father. When it comes to the crunch, though, conditioning tells: Left in authority, Hally instinctively finds himself becoming “Master Harold,” repudiating and demeaning his emotionally bonded brethren—a tragic mistake, since it destroys the little paradise the three have built together. At the same time, Fugard suggests, it’s only by making such irreversible mistakes that one grows up and learns to perceive other people as adults. Life is tragic, and all of childhood’s illusory paradises must die sooner or later.

Allegory offers two dangerous literary temptations of its own, and Fugard falls somewhat into both of them in this effective but second-drawer play, giving it an unwieldy barbell shape: He unfolds his metaphor too slowly at the beginning and explains it too heavily at the end. This puts a heavy burden on the director, and on the actors playing the two principal roles, Hally and the wise, paternally forbearing servant Sam: They have to create, with thinnish material, lives in depth that can hold our interest until the political substance shows up. Fugard signals its arrival with a big speech that is the nub of his intention, Hally’s vision (an allegory within an allegory) of the world as a ballroom dancing competition, in which we all have to learn not to bump into each other. That the crisis arises, a little arbitrarily, out of this speech makes Hally seem slightly dim, or perhaps inattentive to what has been going on, rather than hamstrung by prejudice; the overexplaining that Sam has to do may come from Fugard’s sense that something in the play has not come out quite right, that he has taken too long to play his hand.

It certainly seems that way, anyhow, in the Roundabout revival staged by Lonny Price, who created the role of Hally in 1982. Price takes his time—it feels like a great deal of time—with the initial setup, and he has cast a novice, Christopher Denham, as Hally, whose self-conscious and overstated attack on the role suggests more trepidations than even Hally suffers. In fairness to Denham, the role is both heinously demanding and—double whammy—a Juliet-style problem, i.e., if you’re old enough to comprehend it, you’re probably too old to play it. Fortunately, matters are made bearable, and the whole production is justified, by Danny Glover’s Sam, conveying the character’s affection, patience, indignation, and fury, all with the even, slow-spreading warmth of a good fireplace—a very different performance from Zakes Mokae in the original, the acrid fire of whose Sam burned just under the character’s patiently smiling surface. Glover, who played the smaller role of Willie then, may have been storing up his own ideas for this occasion while he watched Mokae, but his performance does not read as a conscious comment on his predecessor; everything is immediate, and the cumulative effect, nicely abetted by Michael Boatman’s Willie, is fairly devastating despite the production’s flaws.

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.

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.