As the holidays approach, liberal New Yorkers are already devising ways to avoid fraught conversations initiated by their conservative relatives. Why would they pay for the privilege of a haranguing when they can get one for free at the Thanksgiving dinner table? They might volunteer to spend a few hours in the company of decidedly different ideologies if those viewpoints were handled with thoughtfulness and a genuine sense of tension. Will Arbery aims for that exchange of ideas in Heroes of the Fourth Turning, currently receiving its world premiere from Playwrights Horizons.
Arbery — who, we learn from a program note, was raised by Republican Catholic academics — endeavors admirably to portray the kinds of people he grew up around, and the doctrine they embraced, in a compassionate, matter-of-fact way. These are not the usual characters you find in an Off-Broadway play; even the “progressive” among the bunch professes that abortion is murder no less than a half-dozen times. The playwright describes the brand of conservatism modeled by his parents and their social circle as “poetic, passionate, and nuanced.” A goal of Heroes is to show those of us who exist somewhere to the left of the salad fork that liberals don’t have a monopoly on intellectualism or rationality, and that the devoutly religious are not blindly dogmatic.
Too often, though, Arbery tries to have his communion wafer and eat it, too. The conversations that abound across the play’s intermission-less two hours – which is directed with real visual panache but a wavering sense of tone by Danya Taymor — often sound like reactionary sound bytes, the five characters (all affiliated with an insular Catholic college in rural Wyoming) sometimes resembling CNN talking-heads with twangier accents. Passing references to Gerard Manley Hopkins or Flannery O’Connor appear to remind the audience that these people are nominally educated, but the playwright doesn’t mine the purposes of religious instruction for much depth. The drama vacillates between Christian mysticism and political pragmatism with little sense of narrative shaping or ultimate motive.
Arbery likens the structure of the piece to a musical fugue — the type of composition in which multiple voices offer contrapuntal variations on the same theme, often with violent results. Sure enough, topics like abortion, gender identity, sexual liberation, and the value of proselytizing recur throughout, with each character shifting the subject to introduce (or reject) various aspects of the debate. Yet rather than building upon what has already been said, Arbery writes as though he was working his way through a checklist of hot-button issues that needed airing. A musical fugue rises and falls on the development and expansion of themes; here, the ideas are not so much developed as rehashed.
My family tree includes enough Catholic branches to make all the play’s talking points familiar, and certain lines seem calibrated to send leftist audience members into fits of disbelief. (At the performance I attended, several loudly gasped when Teresa, a Coulteresque pundit played with shallow showiness by Zoë Winters, compared reproductive rights to a national pogrom.) Yet I detected little of the poetics, or the passion, that Arbery eloquently described in his author’s note. The assembled parties — four alumni of the Transfiguration College of Wyoming (played by Winters, Jeb Kreager, Julia McDermott, and John Zdrojeski) and the school’s newly installed president (Michele Pawk) — talk circles around each other, but no one does much listening.
Throughout the proceedings, I saw missed opportunities. Gina (Pawk), the rigorous and revered president, is a contradiction in terms — a brilliant academic, a female leader in a male-dominated religion, a “compassionate conservative,” and someone who professes that a woman’s “real strength is in bearing a child — and then staying open to as many as God wants to give you.” I have no doubt that such women exist, but Arbery doesn’t seem interested in reconciling the character’s diverging ideologies — or her relationships to Teresa, who clearly threatens her, or to Emily (McDermott, quite good in the play’s least developed role), her daughter, whose chronic illness betrays her conception of a woman’s purpose. An extended showdown between Gina and Teresa feels like it was lifted from daytime television, and Pawk is largely unable to craft the charismatic cult of personality that her role needs to fill out deficits in the writing.
Catholic values like compassion, good works, and social justice largely go unexplored. The majority of the characters register as deeply solipsistic. Only Emily, who we learn once worked for a charity that persuaded low-income pregnant woman to avoid abortion, seems to have spent any time in service of others; however, her charitable mission is later revealed as little more than a convenient deus ex machina deployed to bring the play home after Arbery has exhausted his various rhetorical devices.
Trump is also namechecked, but his inclusion covers little new ground in illuminating his continued support among the devout. When Teresa and Gina debate whether he is a demon or a savior, you could just as easily imagine Kellyanne Conway and Peggy Noonan saying the exact same words on Hannity.
As the name of the fictitious college suggests, Arbery is also interested in the aspects of faith that defy corporeal understanding. The production leans into transcendental elements, including a series of shockingly loud sound cues (designed by Justin Ellington) that remain mysterious and jarring throughout most of the night, until their meaning is too obviously telegraphed in the play’s final moments. Numerous references are also made to the 2017 total solar eclipse, although that natural phenomenon is ultimately inconsequential to the action. The spectral aspects seem designed to add weight to what is essentially a facile exploration of religious and political tribalism.
Playwrights Horizons has lavished considerable resources on this script, delivering one of their most striking physical productions in recent memory. Laura Jellinek’s imposing, expansive set design evokes Wyoming’s wide-open emptiness, and Isabella Byrd’s daringly low-key lighting seduces the audience into the characters’ world in ways the play cannot. But once the dust from this dark night of the soul settled, I felt no different than I would after getting an earful from Aunt Sally at Thanksgiving. At least then I can do it while drinking wine.