Leftists, Ladies, and Lenders–After the Revolution, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and The Merchant of Venice


Amy Herzog’s After the Revolution (Playwrights Horizons) has arrived with immaculate timing: This sincere, dignified, somewhat unsatisfactory play may seem better than it is because, among its other good points, the backstory that its characters rehash so extensively may help less knowledgeable theatergoers fill in the hazier historical context of such other current works as In the Wake and Scottsboro Boys. Since theatergoing America apparently grows less knowledgeable by the day, After the Revolution should be viewed as, at worst, a useful clarifier, while its cast and the passion behind Herzog’s writing often make it considerably more than that.

Herzog’s characters represent three generations of an American Communist family in 1999 Boston, a context that makes such a family seem as anomalous as a Tin Lizzie on a superhighway. Ben (Peter Friedman), a high school history teacher, and his widowed stepmother, Vera (Lois Smith), still cling to the Marxist faith, which garners less full-hearted support from Ben’s wife, Mel (Mare Winningham), and from Ben’s brother, Leo (Mark Blum), a sociology professor at Tufts, who freely admits that his own children are cluelessly apathetic to the leftist past, while Ben’s elder daughter, Jess (Meredith Holzman), is a mess, perpetually in and out of rehab.

This leaves Ben’s younger daughter, Emma (Katharine Powell), to carry the radical torch. Newly out of law school, Emma is already a blazing firebrand, who has launched a nonprofit organization fighting to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the alleged Philadelphia cop killer whose questionable 1982 trial still remains a sore point today in disputes over the fairness of America’s justice system. Emma’s organization is named for her grandfather, a government official driven from his post and blacklisted during the McCarthy era, whom she has been raised to regard as a martyr. And that gives Herzog’s play its dramatic mainspring: Just as Emma is about to launch a major new campaign, information unearthed from declassified Soviet archives reveals that her grandfather was not merely a martyr to his political beliefs but, in fact, a spy.

Emma and her elders naturally reel from the effect of the revelation, maybe a little excessively for 1999, when such informational shocks were already commonplace. Herzog weakens her historical substance, too, by making the info that the newly tarnished martyr supplied his Soviet handlers relatively insignificant (economic analyses for OSS’s Far East division) and confining his activities to wartime, when Russia was our ally. Most vociferation over leaked data concerned the postwar period when the USSR was carving out its empire in Eastern Europe, and its acquisition of nuclear weaponry constituted a genuine threat.

In today’s perspective, such matters look wildly different. The Soviet Empire has crumbled, nuclear power is anybody’s game. Access to an unlimited supply of cheap labor has allowed right-wing capitalists to make their peace with “godless Communism” ‘s last remaining major power: The red-state rich are now best pals with the “Red” China that they used to accuse liberals of having “lost.” The bitter fights that rightists once waged to keep people who actually espoused Marxism off movie screens and college faculties they now wage, in Tea Party drag, against a far more nebulous liberalism, born from the left’s own discomfort with Stalin’s crimes and the CP dogmatism that defended them.

Herzog clearly understands all this, but hasn’t wholly assimilated it into her drama, which tends to veer from highly contemporary moments to confrontations that suggest a time well before 1999. The novel sight, onstage, of a leftist family actually discussing politics instead of merely pulling political attitudes gets dampened by a preoccupation with the past, where the play’s action sometimes seems to have gotten stuck, a feeling that Carolyn Cantor’s skillful production can’t help echoing occasionally. Powell, who begins as a fresh and resourceful presence, increasingly accepts the script’s invitation to reiterate her emotional effects. It’s left to the old hands to supply moments of new discovery: The pleasure of seeing Smith, Friedman, Blum, Winningham and, as a bonus, David Margulies, playing a wealthy old-timer with a lech for Smith, all on one stage, at the top of their form, softens any hard feelings the script’s shortcomings might provoke.

Similar mitigations are supplied, though less effectually, by the cast of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Belasco Theatre), Lincoln Center Theater’s attempt to musicalize Pedro Almodóvar’s popular film. Performers like Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti, and Brian Stokes Mitchell, with the power to command audience attention, rarely get to exercise it here because, puzzlingly, the show’s creators somehow haven’t grasped the idea that theatricalizing a movie means altering its focus as well as its form. Jeffrey Lane’s script skims over the story’s frenetic events hurriedly, following the screenplay rather than making theatrical capital from it; David Yazbek’s songs, some of which have possibilities, seem eager to weave themselves into the context, like movie music, instead of rising to show-music heights. And, though I never imagined I’d write this sentence, Bartlett Sher’s direction lacks clarity, and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography lacks point. Madrid is sung about, and seen in projections, but there’s no Madrid atmosphere onstage. Sherie Rene Scott, saddled with a dark wig and a darkly passionate role, struggles gamely to inhabit both.

Last summer’s Central Park Merchant of Venice has transferred to Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre, with mixed success. Mark Wendland’s elaborate set, with its concentric metal rings, looks squashed behind a proscenium arch; director Daniel Sullivan’s mix of 1910s touches with a generally 2010 attitude and sound seems less congruent than it did in the open air. Extensive recasting has brought some assets, notably Peter Francis James’s crisply compassionate Salerio, and left other roles still unsolved, like Christopher Fitzgerald’s Launcelot Gobbo. Both Al Pacino’s Shylock and Lily Rabe’s Portia, sadly, seem less effective in their new context. Pacino, now more businesslike and less cringing, has lost the deepening fury that grew, last summer, beneath the cringe. Rabe, having just suffered the tragic loss of her mother, seemed forced and harsh; hopefully time will ease that. Meanwhile, it’s still The Merchant of Venice, not a common sight on Broadway, and therefore worth having.

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