Boca as Berlin

Two young girls are in front of me in FAU's Studio One Theater. They might be college freshmen, maybe sophomores. They are laughing, gushing, manic in that special way that only pretty 18-year-old girls from Boca can ever really manage. One insists on reading the Director's Notes from the evening's program to the other, and she trips over this line: "Tony Kushner uses these events to look at the lives of dissident young artists, actors, filmmakers and political activists who live in Bohemian Berlin."

"What's bo-bo-Bo-heeemian mean?" she asks, giggling like crazy. A gentleman sitting to my right hears this, and he suddenly looks like he wants to claw out his own eyes. Thus does Tony Kushner's most desperate, dissident play find its context for the evening.

It's a queasy, nervous feeling. Kushner is a writer with an uncanny command of the language, able to squeeze a word or a sentence for meanings that most of us couldn't express on our highest, headiest day. His work — including the much-celebrated Angels in America, which was turned into a gorgeous HBO miniseries in '03 — is characterized by a certain glowy something for which there are no ready-made adjectives. His work appeals to nobility, or to our desire for nobility, and even his plays' weakest, most venal characters are possessed of a dignity that uplifts and damns his audience in equal measure.

When it first opened in 1985, A Bright Room Called Day was a hyperbolic, self-consciously alarmist drama, drawing philosophical parallels between America's ascendant conservatism and Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany. Folks said it was nuts, sensationalist, needlessly pessimistic, and that is almost certainly true — but Kushner had preemptively taken such criticism into account. Zillah Katz, a punky New York teenager living in a Berlin flat, who functions here as some kind of narrator, exhorts the audience over and over again about the tyranny of rationality, the danger of understatement. She knows there is no such thing as paranoia — just vigilance.

The other characters are not quite so well-informed. They are ghosts in Zillah's world — denizens of Berlin's strange, uncertain 1932, passing in and out of the apartment of one Agnes Eggling. She's a good woman, a low-rent film actress with Communist sympathies. Her friends are all Communists too, and in the opening scenes of the play, they can be seen poking gentle, not-quite-outraged fun at Hitler. As the situation in Berlin worsens and '32 passes into '33 and Agnes and company start fearing for their own safety, they sell out. Some flee, some succumb to cowardice in crucial moments, and some just opt to keep their heads in the sand, hoping for the best. There comes a moment when every self-respecting audience member will want to strangle every last human being on the stage, due to their appalling lack of courage on the eve of history's most brutal moment. Six million... !

That's how it's supposed to go, anyway. But as I sit in the world's most uncomfortable theater seat (a thick, rigid slab of ancient plastic that will, by the end of the night, drive the pointy bones of my ass clear through my flesh, leaving me bleeding and crippled), behind two Boca girls who are, minute by minute, making me feel like an extra from a Myspace-generation sequel to Clueless, I am nervous.

I am nervous because these actors are young, most of them, and they're about to tackle some of the hardest material ever penned by one of the world's most word-happy modern playwrights in front of an audience that might not actually give a shit anyway. I don't know how they're going to pull it off.

They manage, although it takes a few minutes for the momentum of the thing to get past its own historical weirdness. We are simply not used to seeing new stories about Nazi Germany; we have become too accustomed to old news. We all know Schindler, we all know Anne — hearing strangers converse about public events, circa 1933, sounds false.

But it's not false — these people know what they're doing, even if we don't. Trent Blanton in particular gives us a heroic portrayal of Vealtninc Husz, a one-eyed Trotskyite Hungarian cinematographer émigré (!), and Kushner's words come alive in his mouth before they do so anywhere else. He's screaming when it happens, railing against a friend's perceived apathy in the face of the coming evil. Shoulders tense throughout the theater. People gasp. One of the little Boca girls in front of me jumps.

And then the thing is off on a momentum all its own, weird and wild and not entirely sane. Teneille Newallo is an impossibly young girl playing an impossibly old woman, the ghost of Germany's disgraced future, and at first, she seems miscast. Later, she seems mummified — you can hear her bones rattle when she walks. Satan pops up, played by Scott Borish doing his best impression of Al Pacino but packing more menace into his five-minute monologue than Pacino did in both hours of The Devil's Advocate combined. Rebecca Simon boggles minds as Zillah, coming on like a freakish, hyperliterate crossbreed of Cyndi Lauper and Johnny Rotten. She's delivering the worst news you'll ever hear — apocalyptic news — and she's having great fun doing it.

And despite the heaviness of its subject matter, this is a fun play. The message is dark, but the method is entertaining — the jokes are like Monty Python with a bad conscience. Satan, for example, probably didn't need to make a cameo appearance: Tony Kushner added him just for the sheer, giddy hell of it. It's a novelty.

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Brandon K. Thorp