Tony Kushner is in rewrite mode. He tinkered with his “Angels in America” for the recent London and Broadway productions. His rewrite of Ernest Lehman’s screen adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ book for “West Side Story” will hit movie theaters next year. And now he has revised his first play, “A Bright Room Called Day,” written in 1985.
A revival of “Bright Room” opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, and the production’s director, Oskar Eustis, calls it “a radical rethink.” The operable word here is “radical.” We’re told from the stage that Kushner’s first play “never worked.” Jonathan Hadary plays the writer and apologizes, “I didn’t trust the play,” and he’s there to do rewrites, especially on a problematic character named Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry), who calls the original work a “dramaturgical boondoggle.” (Although this is not mentioned in “Bright Day,” the name Zillah comes from the Bible; he’s the son of Methushael, a descendant of Cain. Hadary’s character is named Xillah, and it rhymes with Zillah. None of this is pertinent to watching or understanding Kushner’s rewritten play.)
Zillah is less a character than a deux ex machina from 1985 that Kushner drops into a play-within-the-play about German communists living in Berlin, circa 1932 and 1933. Zillah is there to alter what is inevitable regarding Hitler’s rise to power.
The best scenes in “Bright Day” are when Zillah and Xillah show up to stop the action and riff on their respective roles as theatrical device and playwright. They also link what happened in Nazi Berlin to the Reagan Revolution and the Trump presidency, which comes as a complete shock to Zillah, since she’s from 1985. “The clown from Queens?” she wonders.
Zillah and Xillah dazzle with their long rant on the power of absolute stupidity in high places. Also very entertaining are the multiple ways in which they tear down the fourth wall. Xillah apologizes, “I know (the play) is long. I’m keeping you from Chris Hayes and Rachael Maddow.” Those two MSNBC names are not coincidental. Xillah/Kushner knows he’s preaching to the choir at downtown Manhattan’s Public Theater, and the revised “Bright Day” may be the first play to chastise us for thinking we’re doing anything meaningful by listening to speeches we already agree with and feeling morally superior in the process.
Lucas-Perry is beyond enthusiastic in her role as the would-be Nazi exterminator from 1985. Hadary comes off as a benign Bernie Sanders. These actors are a brilliant two-hander waiting to be freed from much of what surrounds them.
That said, “Bright Day” needs another character. Let’s call him/her/their Yillah, or The Dramaturg, who could cut at least 30 minutes from this three-hour play. First cut: Hadary gives us a long account of how the title “Bright Room” came to Kushner one day when he visited an exhibition on Agnes de Mille, who choreographed the original “Oklahoma!,” among other works. Her first name is Agnes, just like Kushner’s lead German character here. Is Kushner saying that de Mille is relevant because she refused to speak out against her rabid right-wing uncle Cecil B. deMille, the movie director? Second, third and fourth cuts would be much of the Berlin storyline. Kushner gives us an almost daily, sometimes hourly, account of what happened in Germany from 1932 to 1933. Factoids about the Hitler’s rise to power are projected on the upstage wall of David Rockwell’s handsome apartment set. These statements of horrible political facts are simple and riveting. Some of the communist characters in “Bright Room” are not.
The exceptions are Linda Emond’s intellectual communist Annabella and Michael Urie’s gay communist Gregor. Urie manages to be campy and still exude supreme strength. Emond grounds every scene she’s in with her quiet, focused intensity.
Eustis has less success with his other actors. Michael Esper, cursed with an impenetrable Eastern European accent, can’t make his firebrand Hungarian communist Vealtninc anything other than obnoxious. Grace Gummer’s excessive mannerisms squelch the comic effect of her dilettante communist actress Paulinka. And at the center of it all, Nikki M. James’s wannabe communist Agnes is almost not there. Which is Kushner’s point, probably. Agnes never joins the party, never takes a significant position on any issue and never grabs our attention. If whiny inertia is a note, James keeps hitting it over and over again in Act 2. Zillah is there to push Agnes into action, but we know it’s a waste of time long before the play ends.
Since he’s on the subject of Hitler, Reagan and Trump (and sets the play in the land of Goethe’s “Faust”), Kushner throws the Devil into “Bright Day,” and Mark Margolis delivers a most memorable one. He’s alternately gross and debonair, and Rockwell’s fiery set-design adds considerable heat to an already sizzling cameo. Even more theatrical is Estelle Parson’s walking nightmare, a scary old beggar woman who haunts Agnes’s conscience. Parsons shows up in the Nazi Germany sections of the play to goose the action whenever Hadary and Lucas-Perry are off stage doing something else. Hadary even admits that Parsons is something of a needed distraction. She’s kind of like that flying lady with big wings in “Angels in America: Perestroika.”