Karl Marx was famously of the opinion that world history happened once as tragedy and again as farce. But for Gittel Fenster, the aspiring revolutionary heroine of Dan Fishback’s charming, wise new musical The Material World—now playing at Dixon Place, in a production skillfully directed by Stephen Brackett—history returns again and again in song-and-dance numbers: medleys with the future; duets with the past.
It’s 1921, and the squabbling immigrant Fenster clan, denizens of the Bronx, are holding a family referendum on whether or not to go back to revolutionary Russia. Papa (Leo Schaff), a lapsed utopian and veteran of the failed 1905 insurrection, is understandably concerned about pogroms. Mama (Molly Pope), a communist true believer, wants to return and help engineer the workers’ paradise (even though she’s become quite attached to the petit-bourgeois paradise of a well-ordered kitchen). Little Gittel (a delightfully plucky Megan Stern), who totes around the collected works of Lenin like a security blanket, would also like to go back—to a place she imagines as fairer and gentler, an anti-schoolyard where puberty isn’t so painful. Her starry-eyed sister Mitzi (Amy Gironda), on the other hand, is a Broadway bunny, with dreams of fame and mass adoration.
Complicating the debate are the Fensters’ unusual tenants: In one room, Ian (Cole Escola), a dweeb-y little dude umbilically connected to his laptop, is fixated on the 2012 hoopla in Tahrir Square. In another, Madonna and Britney Spears (caricatured with ruthless zest by Gironda and Lisa Clair) are holding a Zohar study group—promptly recruiting Gittel. (There are narrative justifications for this weird historical palimpsest, but thankfully Fishback doesn’t over-explain.)
This might all sound a little gimmicky, but Fishback has his sights set on far more than pastiche. Though he’s a master of camp parody—he can write a synth-y burlesque Madonna jam with the best of ‘em, and lampoon Britney so fiercely some members of the audience actually gasped “Oh no!” with vicious glee—Fishback is actually following Marx’s lead (ol’ Karl loved a theatrical metaphor more than anyone). In the same essay where Marx talks about history repeating itself, the political prophet also imagines social crises as pageants in which revolutionaries borrow “names, battle slogans, and costumes” from the past to stage their world-transforming dramas.
Fishback conjures spirits from the past and pop icons from the present to scrutinize the last century’s hard political lessons for our confused moment. Madonna’s well-known dabbling in Kabbalah allows Fishback to juxtapose Jewish religious mysticism with the no-less fervent imaginings of utopian socialism—another important Jewish sect. The easy affirmations of pop songs rub up against the urgent imperatives of socialist theory (Madonna and Marx agree, of course, on the idea that we are all material people in a material world.) The personality cults of contemporary celebrity culture are implicitly set against the communist versions. And the wide political horizons of the early 20th century dwarf our narrowed vistas. We’ve substituted the materialism of commodity culture for the materialism of left-wing politics—social crass for social class.
The Material World is both smart and a lot of fun; Fishback delivers political analysis you want to hum along to. Skewering the pretensions of today’s laptop slacktivists, our armchair Trotsky wonders in song how he can save the planet when he can’t handle doing his laundry. (The number’s refrain, set to a vaguely surf-rock melody, is “Revolution, hang out, hang out”—it should be the anthem of the Occupy movement.) And Fishback affectionately pokes fun at musical mores: At one point, Mama’s repressed feelings explode in a barnburner of a bluesy belting-friendly tune (“I’m fucking great” she roars)—and Pope kills it. It’s a parody of Big Diva Numbers that also happens to be a show-stopping Big Diva Number.
Fishback has been compared to Tony Kushner—with good reason. The character of Old Gittel (who we meet in a series of very funny and sometimes very sad flash-forward monologues, delivered with borscht-y aplomb by Eleanor Reissa) must be a nod to the Oldest Living Bolshevik from Angels in America. Fenster means window, and Gittel and fam are a handy way to look back: Like Kushner, Fishback seems driven to examine the legacy of Jewish-American progressive thought—a project that grows more urgent as the members of those forward-thinking generations die off. (You may find Material World especially moving if you’ve got a few shtetl escapees or disappointed utopians on your family tree.)
In a compromise familiar to many political hopefuls through the decades, the Fensters ultimately decide that although America is a “bad place for good feelings,” and a “good place for bad feelings,” it’s good enough for them (and better than the frankly scary realities of revolutionary bloodshed and rampaging Cossacks). Like the Fensters, we all ultimately settled for the “good enough” of capitalism with its limited freedoms and manageable oppressions. But like Gittel’s older self we can still feel let down by it—it’s certainly not the perfectly just world young Gittel and her dreaming generation hoped for. But it’s the material world we’ve got.
In that better, smarter world, perhaps, thoughtful musicals like this one would be on Broadway instead of Spider-Man—until then, let’s be glad Dixon Place is around to think big in small rooms.