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If Days of Rage feels eerily topical, that wasn’t the intention in the beginning. Steven Levenson started writing the play, which follows a group of young people in 1969 fighting the system, in 2009 at the height of the Obama hope era.
“With Obama’s election, it felt like a lot of the promise of the ’60s was coming to pass in a way,” Levenson says. “With the current political climate, it feels like a lot of the urgency that young people felt then is what people are feeling today.”
The play, currently in previews, officially opens Oct. 30 at off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre, and Levenson is teaming up for the second time with actor Mike Faist, who originated the role of troubled teenager Connor Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen. Levenson won a 2017 Tony on that show for Best Book of a Musical.
This time around, Faist plays Spence, a conflicted and passionate young man torn between causes and women. The production, directed by Trip Cullman, also features Tavi Gevinson, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Lauren Patton and Odessa Young.
However, despite their relationship, Faist had to audition for the role. “I’ve seen Mike play the same part for the last four years,” Levenson said. “I had never thought about it before. And then he came in and it was like, of course, absolutely. How do we get him to do this?”
The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Levenson and Faist backstage after a rehearsal to discuss their collaboration, why the play is so of the moment and what’s next for both on the small screen.
Steven, you wrote this play in 2009. Why are you bringing it to the stage now?
SL: It suddenly felt like the questions at the heart of this play were the questions we’re asking now. Like what do you do when you feel like the world is fundamentally unjust? When you feel like everything needs to change immediately? We’re a year into an unpopular conservative president and the country is polarized and young people are demanding change and it all just feels very timely all of a sudden.
You two previously collaborated on Dear Evan Hansen. Is your work together similar or different this time around?
MF: I mean it was different. We talked about this, musicals to plays …
SL: It’s less complicated for some reason. I can bring in new pages tomorrow and we can throw them in and try them. You have so much more freedom and so much more room to try things.
MF: There’s a lot of technical issues with a musical whereas with a play it’s just the five people onstage in this moment.
What is your collaborative process like?
SL: We have a comfort and a security with each other. We exchange ideas very freely and without any sensitivity.
MF: The lovely thing about Steven is he’s just so open, maybe too open, where he should just tell me to shut up.
Were either of you inspired by current events while you were working on the production?
SL: Well, there was definitely the whole Parkland moment, and in a way it’s more like the play refracts those events so differently. I’m hearing it all with new ears, and so I want to be sensitive to how it comes across and also make sure that it doesn’t feel too resonant. In a lot of ways the play is a cautionary tale. It’s not meant to be a didactic lesson of here’s how you make change. It’s more the pitfalls and the dangers of believing you can make change without really changing yourself.
MF: History just continues to repeat itself over and over again. We just keep making the same mistakes. We’re so primal still in our way of thinking and reacting.
Steven, you mentioned you view it as a cautionary tale. Can you talk about the moral ambiguity of the piece?
SL: The play is ambiguous because I feel ambivalent about it all. I have such mixed feelings about it, and the play has mixed feelings about it … It’s exciting and interesting to look back on a time when people were actually fighting for everything and swinging that big. These characters want to change the world, full stop. And I think that’s exciting, and it’s also dangerous.
MF: Sometimes with those ideals you can lose sight of empathy toward the people you’re fighting against, and it doesn’t allow any sort of middle ground.
The last two shows you’ve done together are both focused on young people’s experience. What do you like about exploring these characters?
SL: There’s something amazing about the joy of being alive that young people have and the passion and the fire and the lack of cynicism. And that’s one of the heartbreaking things about these characters is that most of them in the play, incredibly, are not jaded to a fault. In a way, they’re incredibly pessimistic and also incredibly innocent. But they think they’re not innocent and that’s part of where the humor comes from. They feel jaded, but they’re not.
MF: They feel like they’ve experienced so much and that’s why they feel like, oh, we can change the world. And they feel much older than what they are.
SL: Young people today seem a little more emotionally healthy than these characters in a lot of ways … The kids today are fighting within the system very much. They’re calling their Congressmen. They are figuring out how to use the system to get what they’re trying to get done, which is amazing. These characters don’t like their parents. They don’t like anybody older than 30. There’s this real anti-establishment feeling that I think is so interesting. I feel like young people today are less that way.
What else are you both working on?
SL: The big thing I’m doing right now is this Bob Fosse/Gwen Verdon TV show. It’s an eight-episode series for FX with Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams, and it’s all theater people doing it. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail are both executive producers as well. Tommy’s directing four of the eight episodes. We start shooting in a few weeks here. It’s really exciting. It’s really terrifying. It’s weird because the TV show starts in 1969, which is when the play takes place, but it’s a totally different 1969.
You’re also working with Lin-Manuel Miranda on the Tick, Tick… Boom! film.
SL: Tick, Tick… Boom! was totally separate. I think Tommy said nice things about me to Lin.
What about you Mike?
MF: During the first part of this rehearsal, I shot a pilot here in New York. So we’d be in rehearsals during the day and then I’d shoot all night, and then I’d come to the theater at 8 o’clock, sleep on that couch until rehearsal started at 10, go again. It’s this thing for Amazon called Panic. It’s based off this young adult novel by Lauren Oliver.
SL: We almost lost Mike to this TV show. I remember exactly where I was on a panicked phone call. We knew that we didn’t want to do this play without Mike. We couldn’t imagine anything else. We just love Mike and wanted him to be in it. He’s really good.
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