The Bush Years have inspired much feedback. But so far no one has been brave enough to stage an allegorical romantic tragedy sit-com about the Bush administration.
But Lisa Kron goes there. Back to the days of hanging chads, butterfly ballots and manual recounts. Back to a New York apartment where a few young progressives are incapable of doing anything but switching between CNN and MSNBC.
Smart and at times engaging and witty, In the Wake, is, none the less, dialectic in the guise of a sit-com in the guise of a play. Talky and long, the play reads like the transcript of that 2am college bull session that covers the nature of democracy, dictatorships, monogamy, architecture, the tax code, gay marriage, race, sexuality, experimental film, Rwanda, Thomas Friedman Op-Eds and... Oh wait, the sun is rising. Or Act I is over. Whichever comes first.
Through it all, the characters mostly remain on the couch. Ellen and Danny upstairs. Kayla and Laurie from downstairs who are mostly upstairs on Ellen and Danny's couch. They drink beer and debate politics and discuss the decline of America -- in the wake of Bush v. Gore. While the couch remains the same, the newspaper headlines and video clips projected onto the walls flip forward in time: 9/11. Iraq. Katrina. Catastrophe, scandal, jingoism and cowboy diplomacy. What happens in the lives of Ellen and Danny upstairs and Kayla and Laurie downstairs is much less dramatic, but a subtle analogy is forged.
Heidi Schreck plays Ellen, a brainy, successful, politically engaged "golden girl" who has led a pretty charmed life and has come to feel entitled to her happiness and confident in her goodness. The play's chief conceit is that, like America -- the golden girl of nations -- Ellen believes she is good and just and right, even when the facts on the ground don't bear this out.
Somehow, it's cathartic to watch one of our own fellow do-gooders discover that liberal values are naive and self-serving. (See: Wally Shawn's The Fever.) In the end, In the Wake is a public self-flogging that will speak to guilty white liberals who like their dress-downs vicarious.
Premiering at Berkeley Rep, (and preaching to the choir of lefty Berkeley audiences), the play was written by Kron and directed by Leigh Silverman, who directed Kron's wonderful 2005 play Well about health and race. The new play centers on Ellen and her interactions with boyfriend Danny (the affable Carson Elrod), his sister Kayla (a strong performance by Andrea Frankle), her wife Laurie (well played by Danielle Skraastad) and Ellen's sometimes roommate Judy (Deirdre O'Connell with a comically unsettling lack of affect). On David Korins' sit-com set, family are neighbors who hang out all the time like Ross and Monica did. The fire escape is for smoking, the TV is for yelling at. And everyone banters.
Danny adores Ellen, Kayla respects and admires her, Laurie tries to keep her mouth shut because Ellen is a highly opinionated force of nature. Ellen's other friend (Emily Donahoe) is enamored of her. All of them aim to please, so Ellen is used to calling the shots. Except for Judy, just back from West Africa where she is a humanitarian aid worker. Raised in poverty and now working in crisis zones, Judy alone can speak practice to principal.
And it's this clash between practice and principal, action vs. intention that gives the play its bite. "Don't tell me about your morals or ethics, show me your tax code," says Ellen at one point, understanding that meaning well means very little.
There are a few scenes where class tensions and the gap between real and ideal are taut enough that we can feel it viscerally. Miriam F. Glover gives a great performance as Judy's teenage niece in one uncomfortable scene that nearly makes it all worthwhile.
Well was something of a masterpiece because it undermined its own sincerity every step of the way. Like In the Wake, Well also considered the lead character's self-serving preconceptions and rationalizations while it explored larger socio-political issues. But Well, which starred Kron, who was 1/5 of the Five Lesbian Brothers, a campy comedy quintet in the East Village, was full of meta-theatrical mayhem, self-deprecation and disobedient characters who refuse to stay on message.
In the Wake, takes itself way more seriously. And as Al Gore now knows, that can backfire.
In the Wake runs through June 27, 2010 at Berkeley Repertory Theater. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.