Voter suppression. Emergency acts to achieve the government’s agenda, disdain for the courts and attacks on the press. A group of progressive friends become increasingly anxious and despairing, unsure how to resist in the face of the swift rise to power of a dangerous right-wing demagogue stoking devision. Sound familiar?
In 1985, Tony Kusher was still a student at NYU when he staged his first play, A Bright Room Called Day at the Off-Off-Broadway Theatre 22 in New York. It went on to be professionally produced two years later at San Francisco’s Eureka Theater, directed by Oskar Eustis. Over three decades on, Kusher is one of the world’s most acclaimed living playwrights, with a Pulitzer Prize, four Tonys, three Oliver awards and two Oscar nominations to his name, while Eustis, who commissioned Kusher’s Angels in America, is now a fellow Tony winner and Artistic Director of the Public Theater.
Set in early 1930s Berlin on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power and continuing until the operation of the first concentration camps, the original play saw the Berlin scenes interrupted by commentary from a 1980s character, Zillah (played by Crystal Lucas-Perry here), distressed by the ruthlessness of the Reagan administration. In these perilous days for democracy Kusher and Eustis have returned to the play. Rather than running the risk of the work feeling like a museum piece about 80s liberal political anxiety reflected through a 30s German lens, Kusher has expanded the theme of history repeating itself and our failure to heed its lessons, by creating a new, present day playwright character. This new figure, Xillah (Jonathan Hadary), essentially Kusher himself, interacts with Zillah and speaks directly to the audience, voicing his frustrations with art’s limitations, the play’s flaws, his attempts to rework it and his angst over the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The concept might sound too cerebral to allow the 1930s scenes to engage us, however in bridging the connection so explicitly between the social anxiety of the left in 1930s Germany, Reagan’s America and today, it actually contextualises the characters’ experiences in such a way that we can’t help but deeply empathise with their fears
The play has been reworked before, though less extensively, for the London production in the late 80s to bring in Thatcher and at the Public Theater in 1991 mentioning George H. W. Bush. Ultimately, the play isn’t so much about comparing modern-day leaders to Hitler, as it is about questioning our response to them: what can we do in the face of a regime that alarms us? What do we call ourselves? How long should we wait before we revolt? Or should we just leave if it gets too bad?
The play opens with a scene that feels like it could have taken place in Sally Bowles’ apartment in the early part of Cabaret. An actress, Agnes Eggling (beautiful work by Nikki M. James) is seeing in the New Year of 1933 with her friends including fellow actress Paulinka Erdnuss (Grace Gummer), immigrant cameraman Vealtninc Husz, the mascara wearing openly gay Gregor Bazwald (a fantastic Michael Urie) who works at the Berlin Institute for Human Sexuality and graphic designer Annabella Gotchling (Linda Emond).
The entirety of the play’s action takes place in Agnes’ sitting room, while the consolidation of Nazi power enters the room not just through the characters’ concerns, but also via chilling, succinct sentences projected on to the wall. The relative safety of Agnes’ apartment is also intruded upon by regular nocturnal visits from a spectral elderly woman, Die Älte (a wonderful Estelle Parsons) and at one point by the devil himself in human form as Gottfried Swetts (Mark Margolis), along with his demon-eyed dog and some impressive flames courtesy of set designer David Rockwell. As Xillah explains “It’s a German play. The Devil always appears in German plays”. This production’s promotional materials pose the question: “When the devil takes up residence in your country, will you act?”
If it weren’t for the excellent acting, the lead characters might at times seem like underdeveloped mouthpieces for the play’s greater purpose. Michael Urie in particular brings moving depth to Bazwald who goes from being relatively carefree in the opening scene to suicidal towards the end. There’s a riveting scene where he describes being within shooting distance, literally, of the Führer but is too concerned about the consequences to act.
As the play builds, it reminded me of that sense of despair I felt as the election result was confirmed in November 2016. Although Kushner’s writer character might have run out of hope, Kushner himself, as the upbeat title suggests, hasn’t. After watching the play I felt suitably anxious, but also fired up to stay active and engaged. A Bright Room Called Day – revisited – is one of the most powerful, thought-provoking works I’ve encountered addressing our response to these dark Trumpian days. If you want some escapism – and who could blame you right now – this play might not be for you. But if you’re looking for something compelling, angry and a fierce call to action go to the Public’s Anspacher Theater before December 15th.
By James Kleinmann
A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY began performances at The Public’s Anspacher Theater on Tuesday, October 29th. This New York revival has been extended and will run through Sunday December 22nd. For more information or to purchase tickets head to publictheater.org, or in person at the Taub Box Office at The Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street, New York.