A Marxist Family and a Lonely Producer, Off-Broadway

Even in this recently political season, Broadway’s fall offerings have been mostly light and fluffy, a collection of swinging Spaniards, flatulent Frenchmen, stand-up comics, Beatles, and elves. But off-Broadway has picked up the slack, staging excellent political work—including, now, the intelligent, warm, crisply staged, and fantastically cast After the Revolution, which opened at Playwrights Horizons’ small Peter Jay Sharp Theatre a week ago.

Written by Amy Herzog and directed by Carolyn Cantor, After the Revolution examines three generations in a bourgeois-bohemian family of leftist Jewish intellectuals. Dead sainted Grandpa Joe was blacklisted; his son, Ben, is a public-school social-studies teacher of the bald-but-earringed variety; and Ben’s daughter, Emma, is a fresh law-school grad who’s started a social-justice fund, named for grandpa, devoted to saving Mumia Abu-Jamal. (It’s excusable; the play is set in 1999.) They’re a cozy, happy, mutually shit-giving family of suburban Marxists, and everyone—stepmothers, Uncle Leo the sociology professor—is kvelling over Emma, who has become a firebrand public speaker, a real activist, poised to carry on the family tradition.

Then word comes that a new book is set to be published, drawn from the Venona transcripts of Soviet intelligence messages, revealing that Grandpa Joe wasn’t persecuted by McCarthy & Co. purely for his beliefs; he was in fact a Soviet spy during World War II. And Ben has known this for years but never told Emma.

Emma melts down, unsure of what to believe in and whether to continue her work. She won’t speak to her father, who melts down, too. She confronts Vera, Joe’s devoted widow, but Vera argues for the righteousness of the Soviet cause during the war, when only the communists cared about the working man and only the Soviets were keeping Nazis from killing more Jews. Emma stops going to work, and she nearly loses her smart and hunky Puerto Rican boyfriend, Miguel. (Ben revels in speaking Spanish to him; Vera, politics notwithstanding, reminds Emma it would be O.K. to date a nice Jewish boy.)

There are some flaws: Emma is often so certain and self-pitying that it can be hard to sympathize with her. (It’s also implausible that this brilliant young Marxist has to be told what the Venona Papers are.) The family drama occasionally veers toward family melodrama. And some of the most intriguing points—how can comfortable, established 1990s Americans fairly judge the actions their grandparents took in a time of war, ideological ferment, and anti-Semitism?—are raised only to be ignored.

But Ms. Herzog’s writing is sharp, funny, and emotionally wise. The cast is wonderful, compellingly flawed humans, all. This cantankerous, political family is one you’ll want to spend time with—indeed, it’s one many New Yorkers will feel like they already have.

 

THERE ARE PLENTY of works about actors and singers, about desperately ambitious stage mothers and aspiring, back-stabbing ingénues. But the plight of the Broadway producer is rarely dramatized, at least this side of Bialystock. Mistakes Were Made, a comedy by Craig Wright and directed by Dexter Bullard, which opened Sunday at the Barrow Street Theatre, aims to rectify that shortcoming.

Michael Shannon, who plays the fanatical federal agent Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire, is Felix Artifex, a producer of theatrical shlock who spends an afternoon working the phones in his dingy office in a desperate attempt to pull together, finally, a masterpiece. There’s a secretary in the outer office, but she’s heard nearly exclusively through the constantly buzzing intercom, and there’s an obese fish in a tank, who occasionally serves as conversation partner. But the play is essentially Mr. Shannon yelling on the phone for 90 minutes, and he’s spectacular.

It’s a one-man farce, with the stakes constantly escalating. Mistakes Were Made is the play-within-the-play, about the French revolution, and the huge movie star Johnnie Bledsoe is interested in starring, which would get the play produced. But there’s a problem: Bledsoe wants to play not King Louis but instead “the kid,” which is not heretofore a character in the play, and he wonders if the epic could instead be a one-man show. Artifax tries to juggle Johnny, the reluctant playwright, the playwright’s furious agent, and, most troublingly, an increasingly alarmed sheep-herder someplace on the other side of the world, who’s wrangling props for a presumably Antoinette-themed ad shoot while facing down militants with flame throwers.

An attempt to humanize Artifex by giving him an ex-wife and a dead (lost?) daughter fails: They don’t effectively provide motivation, and a late scene of crisis about the daughter seems wildly out of place. And when Mierka Girten, as the secretary, finally makes a brief appearance, it’s jarring to discover the gum-snapping, old-New York voice on the phone turns out to be a Brooklyn hipster chick with arty tattoos.

But it’s Mr. Shannon that makes the show. So buttoned-up on HBO each week, here he lets loose, prodding, cajoling, finagling, screaming, and yelling. Mr. Wright’s script nicely builds comic tension, but Mr. Shannon’s expertly played exasperation is what gets the thing produced.

A Marxist Family and a Lonely Producer, Off-Broadway