There’s a troubling, extraordinary portrait of an uncompromising American Communist in Jules Feiffer’s A Bad Friend , his new play about Stalinist sympathizers in 1950’s America at Lincoln Center. Perhaps we’re more used to bigots onstage coming from the political right in the form of racists or Salem witchhunters. The intriguing thing in this drama of betrayal and paranoia is that Mr. Feiffer has not only drawn the truth about misguided American Communists of recent history. He’s partly based the central role of the apparatchik Naomi on his late sister and mother.
“My Marx and Lenin were I.F. Stone and Murray Kempton,” the 74-year-old playwright, and legendary cartoonist, told The Times . “Nonetheless the doings and undoing of the Communist Party U.S.A. was a part of my own life.” Here we have his Naomi, a Jewish housewife and mother living in 1950’s Brooklyn Heights in squalid McCarthyite times. She’s obsessed with anti-Semitism, and she’s morally and politically blind. We might find ourselves agreeing with her sense of outrage about many good, brave causes of the era-except that she horrifies us.
Naomi is a bullying Stalinist apologist who refuses to recognize the god that failed. Her husband, Shelly, is a fellow traveler with dawning doubts about the cause. But when he timidly confronts her with irrefutable evidence that Stalin is responsible for pogroms against the Jews, the truth leaves her in furious denial. This is a woman who’s so locked in her own revolutionary doctrine that when her excited teenage daughter, Rose, is promoted from stockroom girl to salesgirl during her summer job, she thinks it’s a capitalist plot. “You think these people are your friends?” she demands. In A Bad Friend , no one can be a friend who doesn’t believe in the cause.
“Shall I tell you what a liberal is?” Rose’s father says to her. “A liberal is a person who has his feet firmly planted in mid-air. A liberal is on the side of the people only until the point when the struggle objectively demands an organized response. At which point, your liberal succumbs to his classical role as a reformist handmaiden and sells out to the ruling class. Is that the role you see for yourself, Rosie?”
With parents like these-poor Rosie! The soapbox indoctrination, the dogged boorishness of the parents appears laughable. Naomi, the Stalinist, is a believer who would turn in her own husband to “the authorities” had they been living in Cold War Russia. But they’re living in a scoundrel time of American suspicion, when informers turned in anyone who might be a Communist sympathizer instead. This is the way it was, Mr. Feiffer is warning us; this is the way it still could be.
A Bad Friend asks on several different levels: Who isn’t capable of betrayal? Whom can we trust? The question is provoked by all six characters. Naomi, the true believer, betrays her soul; her weak, vacillating husband deceives himself in a smaller way, perhaps (he at least harbors doubt). But when lives are wrecked, are there small betrayals? There’s the friendly stranger who’s clearly-a bit too clearly-an F.B.I. agent. There’s Emil, the middle-aged painter who befriends the high-school senior, Rose, on the promenade, and the implication that this benign man’s motives must be suspect. Rose herself is innocently compromised. And there’s Naomi’s Communist brother, Uncle Morty, the big-shot writer who sold out to Hollywood and will betray bigger causes.
The arbitrary purges and blacklists of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee have blurred into history for many Americans, and Mr. Feiffer has written his conscience play for symbolic reasons. After all, it was during the traumas of 9/11 that President Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, ominously warned the public: “Be careful what you say.”
The family in the play live almost furtively behind closed doors, afraid their political beliefs will lead to persecution. In an elegant essay in the Lincoln Center Theater Review , Pete Hamill writes admiringly about Jules Feiffer, and reminds us of the erosion of our own Constitutional freedoms. “Some American citizens are being held without charge-or access to lawyers-on suspicion of complicity with Islamic terrorists. Some Arab-Americans have been subjected to ethnic profiling,” he points out. “There is talk of secret tribunals and the justification of assassination and even torture. A bullying form of patriotism is too often the norm. Many of us who love this country are filled with anguish about the easy way in which its great virtues are being thrown away. Many of us remember the 1950’s …. “
The central warning of A Bad Friend is that all bigoted ideologies-whether of the right or the left-shame all reason. The dramatist himself remains proudly of the left, we assume, but the fact that a Naomi could exist is incredible. I’ve never understood how anyone-an American Jew, in particular-could go on being a fanatical Stalinist after the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. Mr. Feiffer shows us the mind-set of the extremist, and how, in the final analysis, we’re all capable of becoming collaborators in our own self-deceptions. But I must reluctantly say that in raising nightmare issues, A Bad Friend is a flawed play.
By focusing on the dilemmas of its teenage heroine, Rose, Mr. Feiffer has transferred his younger self onto the confused daughter, with mixed results. What teenager doesn’t have problems with their parents? The intended memory play drifts into a pro forma coming-of-age story-with a twist.
“You are a wonderful child, and your father and I love you very much,” Naomi says, comforting Rose over her friendship with the suspicious middle-aged artist on the promenade. “But this is proof positive of what happens when you reject Marxist-Leninism ….”
Listen to your parents! Everyone orders Rose around, but she has grounds for complaint. “You ignore context,” her mother goes on (and on). “You become oblivious to objective reality. So you betray and you don’t even know it. And in these times, this weakness, this so-called niceness, this liberalism-this is the worst crime of all.”
The pains of growing up are universal, but the right of passage nags, I’m afraid. Mr. Feiffer’s 36 short scenes are often too close to punctuation marks. A domestic squabble about the infamous “Doctors’ Plot”; the benign vignettes between Rose and the amateur artist threatening “revelation”; Uncle Morty’s familiar deconstruction of High Noon ; the smarmy, ominously lurking F.B.I. man in the gray suit-all lead too predictably to a pat conclusion, though I ought not reveal it.
If ever a production cried out for Brecht, A Bad Friend should have been it. Director Jerry Zaks has encouraged two first-rate performances: Jonathan Hadary as Shelly and, particularly, Jan Maxwell’s utterly believable, finally touching Naomi. But the feel of the production in the intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse isn’t imaginatively inspiring, with its huge screen depicting a panorama of the New York cityscape (should we not know what it looks like?), plus three other screens on high that are used for various projections from time to time (including one of Central Park). But in the evening’s lingering, slow fade on the mute, broken figure of Naomi that ends A Bad Friend , we have the play’s tragic essence in a single, all-too-human image of the Stalinist ghost of history.