A Bright Room Called Day

Theater, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
A Bright Room Called Day
Photograph: Courtesy Joan Marcus

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Adam Feldman 

“What history has to tell us could save us,” says a Weimar communist activist named Gotchling (the steady Linda Emond) in A Bright Room Called Day. “But first it compels us into despair so void of light and air, action stops. And yet all history ever tries to tell us is: Act.” This paradox is at the heart of the Public Theater’s unsettling but essential revival of Tony Kushner’s debut play, which it first produced in 1991 to vitriolic critical dismissal. In returning to the play—and substantially rewriting it—Kushner and director Oskar Eustis pose a challenge to themselves and to us: What can we learn by revisiting the failures of the past? Can we fix them? Can they fix us?

As in its original version, Bright Room tells two stories at once. The first is set in Berlin in 1932 and 1933, and concerns a minor film actress, Agnes (Nikki M. James, in a haunting performance), and her circle of leftist friends: an early gay activist (Michael Urie, warm and funny), a one-eyed Hungarian radical (Michael Esper), a morphine-addled starlet (Gracie Gummer), two squabbling communist officials (Max Woertendyke and the very fine Nadine Malouf). As the Nazis continue their rise—charted by historical updates projected onstage, inexorable only in retrospect—the group falls into infighting and paralysis. In depicting this highly fraught period, Kushner studiously eschews the more obvious potential melodramatics; this is a play about the Nazis in which no Jews are harmed. But amid the discursive philosophical meanderings of this part of the work, he includes two overtly theatrical figures: Estelle Parsons—who, at 92, makes her entrance climbing through a window—as the wraithlike Die Älte, a nightmare of tenacious hunger and decay, and Mark Margolis as a dry, urbane version of the Devil himself.

To anyone on the left today who worries about the centrist-progressive schism in Democratic politics, the parallels to modern life are brutal. This, indeed, was the basis of the negative reaction to Bright Room’s original production, and especially to the play’s second story—that of a 1980s activist named Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry) who continually interrupts the action to rage against the crimes of the Reagan administration. That part of the play has not aged well, which Kushner addresses specifically in his rewrite. Zillah is now joined by a second interrupter: Kushner himself, here called Xillah (the superb Jonathan Hadary, tying himself into frayed knots of doubt), who spars with Zillah and with himself, providing a running annotation of both the play and his own ambivalence about the value of political theater.

This will not be welcome to the kind of people who scream “Godwin’s Law!” at any whiff of comparison to the Third Reich, as though the only lesson of the Nazi era were that we must not learn anything from it at all. But it is a privilege to spend three hours in the company of such an invigorating, morally serious intellect. “Dreams we have of rescuing the dead are only beautiful dreams,” cautions Gotchling. What Kushner offers in their stead is a messy call to awakening.

Public Theater (Off Broadway). By Tony Kushner. Directed by Oskar Eustis. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 55mins. One intermission. 

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