Jules Feiffer's memory play about Brooklyn in the 1950s resounds as a cautionary tale for the United States in the 21st Century. Now at GableStage in a terrific production directed by Joseph Adler, A Bad Friend is ambitious and intimate, a provocative series of family snapshots that evokes the history of an era. It's about McCarthyism, Hollywood's blacklist, lost illusions, and hope regained. It's about a young girl's coming of age and perhaps about a nation losing its way.
We're often told that the 1950s was a decade of innocence but also one of rampant political treachery. The '50s should have been an optimistic period, America fresh from the victory of World War II, but the specter of Communism threatened the world anew. Blacklists were drawn up, careers were destroyed, and paranoia filled the air. It was an age of uncertainty for Naomi and Shelly, two old, card-carrying Commies living in Brooklyn with their teenaged daughter, Rose. When the play begins, Rose's Uncle Morty, a lefty who sold out and went to Hollywood, is visiting. Not too far from the periphery of the teenager's world are two enigmatic figures, a kindly old painter named Emil and a young, smooth operator named Fallon who probably works for the FBI. This is all well-traveled territory, but the playwright -- a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and author of Carnal Knowledge -- is up to more than a nostalgic retread. And the performances are persuasive.
Lauren Feldman is entertaining and moving as Rose. Andy Quiroga as Uncle Morty and Kevin Reilley as Emil have lovely moments, while Nick Velkov brings an uncanny blend of smarminess and charm to Fallon the fed. Avi Hoffman begins Shelly as pure shtick, but he grows in stature and is quite touching in his ideological battle with his wife. In the demanding role of Rose's mother, on the other hand, Tracey Moore seems to have mastered Naomi's lines but not the key to unlocking her soul. Still, the ensemble as a whole is never less than captivating. Alexander Okun's sprawling fantasy of a set anchors the action near the Brooklyn Bridge while trumpeting the era's contradictions with huge photos of Stalin, McCarthy, the Rosenbergs, Nixon, and Eisenhower.
Alas, A Bad Friend is a tad overwritten. For example, Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy is mentioned and its plot summarized three times -- when Rose wants to discuss it with Emil after receiving the book, again when she recants the story as if it were real political gossip to the mysterious Fallon, and again by Fallon when he calls Rose a bad friend. One reference would have been enough. An epilogue that suddenly catapults the action from 1953 to 1973 likewise loses steam by repeating itself; there is a genuinely moving memorial service for one of the characters, followed by an unnecessary Academy Award acceptance speech by another for a movie called The Bad Friend. Still, the play's otherwise effective structure as a sequence of short, pithy scenes at times recalls the serial panels of a Feiffer cartoon and frankly shares the limitations of that popular form. In other words, real pathos is too often missing in this political play, along with any carefully constructed political argument. There are hints of it only once: when Rose comes close to noticing that her parents' Marxist-Leninist blind faith in the materialist forces of history actually entails a disregard for the ineffable exuberance of human freedom.
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Then again, maybe these are quibbles, and perhaps a sophisticated political argument is the furthest thing one might expect from any of Feiffer's characters. Give the playwright credit for not once letting A Bad Friend degenerate into a facile exercise in left-wing nostalgia. Forget the depressing realities of the McCarthy era. In truth, to have been blindly in love with Stalin and the Soviet Union in 1953 is, to put it kindly, as benighted as to have fallen for Hitler and his Third Reich in 1943. Naomi and Shelly are not profound political thinkers, nor are they dangerous people. This makes their daughter's unlikely rebellion that much more touching. "I've marched with my mother more times than I've gone to the movies with her," Rose says in an aside that would ring painfully true no matter what the politics of Naomi's marches. At least as moving and also funny is Rose's mortal fear of being nothing more than a liberal -- an infantile ideological disease, according to her Communist parents. "A liberal is a person who has his feet firmly planted in midair," her father tells her. Her mother tells her worse.
Repeating here what Rose actually does, as well as the surprising betrayals of almost everyone else, would require a spoiler alert. Suffice it to say that no one in A Bad Friend turns out to be what we expect. But what matters most is the subtle and extremely valuable lesson of Feiffer's play: Political blindness should not be illegal. In a free country, everyone has the right to an opinion. Sometimes, those you least expect to have a point are the ones who do.
Indeed, the extreme American left has never been powerful or dangerous; it has remained on the fringe, never more than now. The extreme American right, on the other hand, is dangerously close to power, to playing on a people's fears and hatreds, narrowly redefining patriotism as evangelical zeal in full flower, ruthlessly banishing responsible dissent, and challenging every dissenter's patriotism in ways that make McCarthy's despicable antics of the 1950s seem tame.
"Feiffer's play reminds us that some viruses never die," writes Pete Hamill in his program notes for A Bad Friend. "They need only genuine fear to allow them to rise again with renewed force. 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 Fifties. Remember, Feiffer urges us. Remember."
A Bad Friend is certainly a memory play, but more important, Feiffer encourages us to remember the future. It's good advice.
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