'A Bright Room Called Day': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Michael Urie and Nikki M. James in 'A Bright Room Called Day'
As the playwright himself acknowledges, it doesn't quite work.
12/22/2019

This first major NYC revival of the 1985 debut from Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Angels in America' author Tony Kushner is a revised version featuring a stand-in for the playwright commenting on the action.

Reviewing the new revival/revisal of Tony Kushner's 1985 play A Bright Room Called Day seems almost redundant. After all, the playwright does much of the heavy lifting himself, thanks to the periodic interruptions of two fourth wall-breaking characters who provide meta-theatrical commentary about the work even as we're watching. One of them, Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry), also appeared in the play's original version, as a woman from the then Reagan-era present day to provide contemporary commentary about the work set in 1932-33 Germany. The other is the unimaginatively named Xillah (Jonathan Hadary), who serves as a stand-in for Kushner himself. Judging by the lacerating comments of both figures, the playwright feels more than a little sheepish about this early effort.

"It's his first play. It's never worked," Zillah tells us about Kushner's "original dramaturgical boondoggle." Xillah, in turn, describes her as a "formalistic gesture that didn't pay off." At another point, Zillah sarcastically describes their frequent commentaries as "Talmudic footnoting." All these observations are entirely on-the-nose, making you think that if Kushner's playwriting and screenwriting careers ever fizzle, he'd make a terrific drama critic.

Written when the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angels in America was only 26 (a fact Xillah uses to defend himself at one point), the drama depicts the interactions among a group of artistic and progressive Berliners during the period in which the Weimar Republic fell and the Nazis rose to power. The work is set entirely in the well-appointed apartment of intermittently employed actress Agnes (Nikki M. James) and her Hungarian lover (Michael Esper), which is frequented by their friends, including the openly gay Gregor (Michael Urie), the opium-addicted Paulinka (Grace Gummer) and the revolution-minded Annabella (Linda Emond).

As their well-ordered world crumbles around them, the characters become increasingly fearful and despondent. None of them, however, does much of anything, including Gregor, who, in one of the play's few truly arresting scenes, describes how he spotted Adolph Hitler sitting a few rows in front of him at a movie theater and, despite having a gun, didn't shoot the would-be dictator for fear of his own life.  

Instead, they do a lot of talking and arguing, with Agnes mainly sitting barefoot around her apartment entertaining her frequent guests. At various points in the play, those also include a pair of Communist party functionaries (Nadine Malouf, Max Woertendyke); a mysterious old woman (the great Estelle Parsons), possibly a ghost, who comes in through the fire escape and asks for food; and even the Devil himself (a fearsome Mark Margolis, born to play the role), in the form of an asthmatic elderly man who delivers a triumphant monologue about his newfound resurgence. His appearance provides the opportunity for director Oskar Eustis (who also staged the play's first production in 1987) to deliver some much-needed theatrical energy to the evening in the form of pyrotechnics, scenic machinations and a large statue of a demonic dog with glowing eyes.

It's at this point that Xillah once again interrupts the action, telling the audience that the reason he put the supernatural character in his play is because, ever since Goethe's Faust, the Devil has been a staple of German literature. "Let them go, they need to pee," Xillah chastises him. "You don't need to say everything. Trust them to get it."

It's advice that both the younger and older versions of the playwright should have heeded. Everything in the play is over-explained, from the historical events in Germany (related in the form of recurring timeline supertitles resembling an abbreviated Wikipedia page) to the heavy-handed thematic linkage of the rise of German fascism to both the moral transgressions of Ronald Reagan's administration and the authoritarian leanings of the current one. (The latter apparently prompted the work's current revival; Kushner, it seems, can be guaranteed a lifetime annuity from the play thanks to America's penchant for governmental right-wing swings every generation or so.) At the beginning of the play, when Agnes announces, "We live in Berlin, it's 1932, I feel relatively safe," you expect an illuminated sign flashing the word "Irony!" to appear.

It seems churlish to complain about the nearly three-hour play's relentless talkiness, especially since Xillah takes pains to remind us that talking is "all that anyone does in any play." But there's a difference between talking and pontificating, and A Bright Room Called Day (if you're wondering about the title, don't worry, that gets explained as well) leans far too heavily toward the latter. The characters often digress into self-explanatory monologues that smack of a collegiate playwright flexing his writing muscles. For all their time onstage, none of them, with the exception of the animated Gregor, makes much of an impression. And here, that could well be because of Urie's charismatic performance, with most of the other dependably fine actors hamstrung by their schematic characters.

While it's easy to sympathize with the playwright's desire to persist in wrestling with this troublesome work, the repeated interruptions by the fourth-wall breaking characters (including Zillah serenading us with the vintage tune "Memories of You" at the beginning of the second act) quickly prove wearisome. By the time Xillah launches into an impassioned diatribe comparing the politics and acting skills of Reagan and Charlton Heston, our patience has long been exhausted.

It doesn't help that Eustis, who describes how he instantly fell in love with the play when he saw its original workshop incarnation, lacks the objectivity to have reined in some of the authorial indulgence. Yes, it's Kushner, which means that there is much blazing intelligence and imagination on display. Even at its most flawed, there's no doubting that A Bright Room Called Day is the work of a major playwright. Nonetheless, when, at the end of the evening, Xillah finally relents to Zillah's entreaties and announces that he's done yet another rewrite, you find yourself wishing that the playwright had the strength to finally let it go.  

Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Cast: Linda Emond, Michael Esper, Grace Gummer, Jonathan Hadary, Nikki M. James, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Nadine Malouf, Mark Margolis, Estelle Parsons, Michael Urie, Max Woertendyke
Playwright: Tony Kushner
Director: Oskar Eustis
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designers: Susan Hilferty, Sarita Fellows
Lighting designer: John Torres
Sound designer: Bray Poor
Projection designer: Lucy Mackinnon
Presented by The Public Theater