Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 27 November 2019

Review: A Bright Room Called Day at Public Theater

Public Theater ⋄ 29th October - 15th December 2019

With recent revisions from Tony Kushner, there is quiet and bombastic brilliance in this play, but he still does not quite trust his audience. Alison Walls reviews.

Alison Walls

Jonathan Hadary, Nikki M. James, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Michael Esper (in back) (Photo: Joan Marcus)

A Bright Room Called Day is Tony Kushner’s first play. He wrote it in 1985 when still an NYU directing student and mounted it Off-Off-Broadway, where Oskar Eustis came to see it, and—as put in Eustis’s director’s note—by Scene 7, “knew [he] had discovered an artist who would change [his] life.”

Eustis directed it in 1987, and now—32 years later—he and Kushner revisit A Bright Room together in a “radical rethink” of the play. This production at the Public Theater is explicitly prompted by the 2016 election (and presumably everything that has happened since) that for the two collaborators has brought the warnings of the 1980s Reagan-era into awful reality.

We are guided by projected titles. It begins: “PROLOGUE” then “JANUARY 1, 1932.”  Actress Agnes Eggling (Nikki M. James) rings in the new year with glamorous, and opium-addicted actress Paulinka Erdnuss (Grace Gummer), Hungarian, Socialist, and one-eyed lover Vealtninc Husz (Michael Esper), stoic Communist artist Annabella Gotchling (Linda Emond), and member of the Institute of Human Sexuality, Gregor Bazwald (Michael Urie, doing wry gay charm very well). The apartment (beautifully designed by David Rockwell) exhibits the shabby historic glamour that Kushner evidently relishes, here found in the bohemian circles of old Berlin.

Into this intrudes Xillah (Jonathan Hadary) and Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry); the original author and his creation, a New Yorker from Reagan’s America. If Zillah is an “author-surrogate interruptive-oppositional someone-or-other to whom the playwright neglected to give even a trace of a backstory or anything oppositional to do,” Xillah is the author himself (brought to life with excellent surrogacy by Hadary). Zillah’s interruptions have been revised throughout Bright Room’s production history, but Xillah is a 2019 addition.[1]

Knowing the characters will soon have to choose between self-preservation, self-sacrifice, or inertia as the horrors of Nazi rule unfold lends dark humor to Agnes’s New Year’s Day assertion: “We live in Berlin. It’s 1932. I feel relatively safe.” Yet, the succinct title openings for each scene are especially chilling, often in the stark simplicity of each step that paved the way for Hitler and the Holocaust.

Similarly, one of the most striking moments comes not from the narrative itself, but from Xillah’s explanation of the archival image that inspired his creation of Agnes: a sole woman amidst a crowd whose arms are uniformly raised in a Sieg Heil at a Nazi rally, while hers clutch her purse, unmoving. It is curious that this woman’s immobility—in context a terrifying act of resistance—should, in Bright Room, become Agnes’s fatal flaw.

Kushner is nothing if not self-aware. He and Eustis mine his self-critique for comedy, as well as the ineffectual “formalistic gambit” that is Zillah herself. She and Xillah argue over the play’s length, the fact that his characters never move (“They just sit and talk”), and his inability to trust the play itself, or—more importantly—the audience. Fun as this metatheatricality is, the problem is that Zillah is right.

Most egregious is that Kushner indeed doesn’t trust his audience. He didactically articulates everything. In the overlaying of time, Zillah’s desperate desire to warn Agnes of the future and Xillah’s own futile desires in writing a dead character, Kushner almost steps back and lets the awareness grow that the play has our relationship to history back to front. But in the final scenes, lines like “Since we can’t speak to history, we won’t let history speak to us […] And yet all history ever tries to tell us is: act” anxiously lay bare the thematic message. Spelled out, it loses the haunting power it might have had, had Kushner trusted his audience.

Kushner loves language, and he is good at it. He flourishes his literary skill, weaving Hamlet seamlessly into his own text, and delightfully inserts his take on Goethe’s Faust, while also owing a clear debt to Pirandello.

There are some beautiful monologues (Estelle Parsons as the ghostly Die Älte has a gem which she executes superbly). He excels at wittiness too, which relieves some of the didacticism, as does Lucas-Perry’s driving energy as Zillah. (Kushner has corrected himself in giving Zillah something oppositional to do, but still omits her backstory; with Lucas-Perry in the role, there is the implication that within the world of the play, as in U.S. history, it is once again left to a frustrated Black woman to instigate change.) Mahler’s second symphony and the song “Memories of You” (stunningly performed by Lucas-Perry; sound design by Bray Poor) displays musical feeling and add to the aesthetic pleasures of the production.

Kushner’s talent often shows best in smaller moments; the quarreling Communist Party representatives, for instance, caught between solidarity and doubt (Nadine Malouf is especially adept at balancing the tragicomedy of her character, Rosa Malek). But there is brilliance too in his bombast. When the devil/Gottfried Swetts (Mark Margolis, resembling Reagan) is called forth, the design team pulls out all its tricks. The roof descends, flames ignite, the lights shift between restrained realism and spectacular menace, with Margolis’s voice likewise switching between natural deadpan and suitably devilish amplified distortion. The juxtaposition of semi-parodic special effects and the mundanity of true evil is clever.

Bright Room never resolves, however, its own essential problem. What can theater do when faced with Hitler/Reagan/Trump? Zillah urges action, connection, and disruption. She urges the audience to “interrupt plays,” but the only people who have done so recently are two right-wing zealots who disrupted Eustis’s “controversial” Julius Caesar.[2]

Part of the problem lies in the Public’s self-selecting audience—impeachment jokes reliably elicit approving chuckles. Problematic too is the evocation of “them,” a vague abstraction of the evil right that verges on another form of unhelpful blinkering, another way of refusing to leave an outdated room (to borrow the play’s metaphor), while 2019 storms outside.

Theater can be magical. It can be dangerous—to see and to make. But Bright Room equivocates. Xillah admits to being afraid of “power” and of “magic,” which here could be synonymous with emotion. It is not lacking in the excellent actors; by the end, the faces of both Agnes and Zillah stream with heartfelt tears. They, however, are inside the play, whereas the audience is left in contemplation of the playwright’s concepts, even while finding enjoyment in their theatrical execution.

The potential for staggering emotion is there in the source—in the bare facts and that archival photo—and it is there in the contemporary reality that provoked this revisiting too. Kushner has not (yet) tapped its power.

[1] Xillah was included in a 2018 production, but this current script places everything in 2019.

[2] As others have noted, they should possibly brush up on their Shakespeare.

Alison Walls is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: A Bright Room Called Day at Public Theater Show Info

Directed by Oskar Eustis

Written by Tony Kushner

Scenic Design David Rockwell (set), Susan Hilferty and Sarita Fellows (costume)

Lighting Design John Torres

Sound Design Bray Poor

Cast includes Linda Emond, Michael Esper, Grace Gummer, Jonathan Hadary, Nikki M. James, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Nadine Malouf, Mark Margolis, Estelle Parsons, Michael Urie, and Max Woertendyke.

Show Details & Tickets


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