One has to wonder how it must feel to win a Tony Award for your playwriting (or any award for that matter). You now have that pedigree where someone can look at an advertisement and say something like: “Oh Bill! That Lynn Nottage has a new play coming up!” or maybe “What should we see? Well this play is written by that guy who won a Tony for that Vanya and Sonya thing we saw a few years ago.”
Now, I can be guilty of this. I also don’t necessarily think it is anything to be guilty of. The majority of theatregoers do it or they are more concerned with the performers involved (something I can always be interested in). What I do think about writers who win awards is that it can lead to more work of theirs being produced at the sake of those who don’t have the “clout” to get their work done in New York…or anywhere. Does this also mean that plays of lesser value get seen quite often then?
Steven Levenson was fairly known as a playwright whose work was often seen at Roundabout Theatre’s off-Broadway venues. He managed to strike gold writing the Book for the major Tony Award winning success, Dear Evan Hansen. First of all, I had A LOT of problems with this particular musical as to how it dealt with a boy with severe Social Anxiety only for a lot of his quirks to be practically erased the moment he becomes the boy of the moment. And how is that? By unintentionally and then MORE intentionally exploiting the suicide of a loner classmate. Granted this isn’t a review about Dear Evan Hansen so I won’t go much further. What I will say about it before moving on is that the show was buoyed up by its actors and, despite the story flaws, the dialogue by Levenson. That isn’t to say that it was high art but it was an entertaining Book and frankly my favorite aspect more so than its generic pop score (I feel people my age and younger ready to throw things at me, but whatever…)
We now arrive at DAYS OF RAGE, a new play by Levenson that just closed at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre (where, coincidentally, Dear Evan Hansen got its start…go figure). It was brought to my attention by my boyfriend, who is a proud Democratic Socialist and loves everything about this particular movement. With discounted tickets, we went to the final Sunday matinee and despite some very mixed reviews (and not much knowledge of these reviews on my part), we were hoping for the best.
Now, as someone who grew up in a fairly conservative environment and only in the past decade have I grown more into someone who would identify as more of a far left liberal/socialist, I felt an interest in seeing a show about young radicals during a time where young radicals are needed to lead the charge that has been begun by the lunacy of the alt-right politicians primarily and power and those who have been lulled into submission by the centrist Democratic establishment led by people like Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In the end, I felt like I watched a play that told me that being a radical wasn’t worth it and that one should stick to the typical status quo.
There has been a lot of discussion about this. The other day, I saw a headline from The Washington Post, I believe, that discussed if the Democrats should stick with a more centrist candidate to try to woo Trump voters or go far- left. I do not want to get into that debate right now but what I do want to say is that it seemed pretty common for hardcore Clinton supporters to bash the “Bernie Bros” and blame them and Bernie Sanders himself for costing Clinton the election. Like…how DARE this man take the spotlight from our beloved Queen!
Oh please…I thought you were all about democracy.
DAYS OF RAGE presents these group of radicals as relatively whiny and sort of flighty individuals who waver on what they feel is right and in the end, they seem more concerned over their sexuality…and therein lies the show’s (perhaps) biggest flaw.
I gladly own up to the fact that I love anything that discusses sexual activity and the relationships that surround it. You would think that the fact it plays a role in this play would get me to be instantly enthralled. At first, I sort of was admittedly intrigued but it was still early in the show and it was the first sign of anything that was kind of interesting.
The play revolves around three friends who live in the same house, a typical run-down home that screams “college party house”, they are Jenny (Lauren Patten, who recently got good notices out of town in the Alanis Morrisette jukebox musical JAGGED LITTLE PILL), Spence (Mike Faist, who was the loner boy who commits suicide in DEAR EVAN HANSEN), and Quinn (Odessa Young, who often feels like the rock of the group). We soon learn that they all sleep together, but that perhaps Spence and Jenny have a stronger connection since they do have a history dating back to pre-teen years.
Their world is thrown off in two different ways: Jenny meets Hal (J. Alphonse Nicholson), a young black man of particular refinement who seems to be more of a centrist who works a decent paying job at Sears (back when that meant something) and he has a younger brother who CHOSE to enlist in the Vietnam War. They do build a sense of attraction to one another as the play goes along.
Then, Spence meets a quirky young Peggy (played by Theatre vet and fashion magazine editor Tavi Gevinson, who reads so much here as a young Michelle Williams and has dashes of a younger version of Woody Allen favorite Dianne Wiest). She seems to be eager for a place to stay and plays along into the desire to join the resistance…she also comes along with $2000 in her bag at a time when our lead threesome really need it for their quest to go from Ithaca, NY to Chicago for the protest, a city which not too long before was the sight of the Democratic National Convention where several violent protests and acts occurred both in and outside of the venue.
We find out soon that there were originally two other guys who lived with the gang and they were the first to supposedly crack under pressure to being found by the FBI for planning bomb attacks as they are all being inspired by the Weatherman cadre who recently took over leadership of the Students of Democratic Society. However, perhaps they weren’t so paranoid after all as it seems they may have been involved in a botched bomb explosion (a plot point that isn’t fully clear as the moment it is revealed is during one of chaos…or rather Levenson has everyone talk over one another because he seems to think that will get us enthralled in the heat of the moment).
I am going to refrain from getting too into the synopsis from here on out but I do want to focus on character traits, specifically. Peggy is set up as an outsider, which she definitely is, but then we see signs that perhaps maybe she knows more than she does…and yet, we get moments where she confuses Vladmir Lenin with John Lennon, an easy joke that I’ve heard and thought of myself multiple times. In many ways, Peggy sets the story in motion and acts as a catalyst that connects everyone together in the house as she sleeps with Spence and even kisses Quinn in a moment that screams of Levenson seeking salaciousness in his script. She screams and throws tantrums about their safety in such a way that makes you wonder when this girl suddenly became the leader and you sort of get the vibe from the script that the others feel the same way even if it seems incredibly vague.
The play hits a massive thud when we find out who Peggy is (in a plot twist that would be more at home on a daytime soap or perhaps a comedy where it could actually work for a strong laugh), and it leaves us with our first feeling we will have of this: nothing mattered. Everything set up drama wise, involving being stalked and chased and beaten wasn’t even connected to the plot. It just led to a twist that leads to some audience members (including in my audience yesterday) having that delayed sense of “Huh??…..OHHH!! Haha!”.
But no…it doesn’t work for this play. A play about a group of radicals really seems to come down between the dynamics of non-monogamy and then critiquing the choices of the radicals when it involves their choice of being a radical. This aspect is brought upon by Hal, who sort of takes a more laissez-faire approach to his beliefs on the war. He wants it to end and he wants his brother to come home, but he doesn’t seem to be overly concerned about the killing. Our big threesome DOES care obviously and they basically think Hal’s younger brother is an idiot for even wanting to enlist by his own accord.
This leads to an argument of what is considered “right” as our radical group seems whiny and Hal seems cold, but I would claim that Hal comes off as looking better. It helps that he is shown as being someone who is working and making a life for himself. The radicals are presented as college dropouts who don’t work and only care about politics. I instantly related it to the plot of RENT: Hal is the Benny of this story, in which you could say he is portrayed as a villain to some, but he just has a different viewpoint and is just trying to improve his life. Granted, Benny in RENT is WRITTEN to be rather condescending but I never fully saw it that way.
After all of this occurs it all ends up coming down to the real drama of the story: the sexual relationships. Anyone with a history in this political spectrum or anyone who would be considered a radical far-left person nowadays should be instantly offended by this piece. All of the interesting political ideals that could have made a very brash and exciting time at the theatre all became a discussion of sex…in about the only time I didn’t want it.
I want to add quickly that this ensemble did a wonderful job. They did basically the maximum they could with the text they were given. You could even say I cared about them to some degree as they each added personality traits that made them interesting even though their story wasn’t. It was a case of where I wanted to see these characters in a plot that was worthy of them to grow and breath in.
The show ends with only the characters of Spence and Quinn attending the protest in Chicago (in which my boyfriend confirmed that it was attended by over 1,000 people unlike the 200-300 that Levenson writes) and Levenson launches us into a “What will happen to our friends?” epilogue that sort of reads as if they are in some sort of other dimension or time like they are the Bohrs and Heisenberg in COPENHAGEN…of course, it goes without saying that it isn’t exactly like COPENHAGEN since that play was a stunning exercise.
Quinn launches into a monologue in which she apparently knows the future and how none of them will keep in touch and how they will all become what they never thought they would be: “a liberal democrat”. It rings of a sense that nothing matters yet again. One day, they will jump onto the train of the Status Quo. None of it works for entertaining drama nor is it convincing as rhetoric.
As she comes to a close, Spence asks her “Is this the end?” to which Quinn replies “No. It is only the beginning”.
Cliché, party of one, your table is ready.