There are many wonderful, crazy things in Will Arbery’s new play, “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons. Any adventurous, slightly perverse theatergoer won’t want to miss them.
First, there’s the house designed by Laura Jellinek. Her back-porch design is pretty standard. What’s not is the deafening, prolonged belch the house emits at key moments in the drama. Kudos to sound designer Justin Ellington.
There’s also the character of Justin (Jeb Kreager, giving an understated performance). Justin is a deer-shooting, pistol-packing, rosary-carrying devout Roman Catholic with warts on his penis who proudly voted for Donald Trump and now wants to move to Busseto, Italy, to become a monk. Apparently, he checked out the monasteries in Wyoming, where “Heroes” is set, and found them too liberal.
And then there’s the scene where Justin’s good friend Kevin (John Zdrojeski, being very over the top) has drunk and smoked way too much at the party, and maybe even taken a hit of cocaine, and now has to puke during the middle of praying a rosary with Justin and their very sick friend Emily (Julia McDermott, also over the top) — they all carry rosaries and presumably pull them out at the uncorking of a Budweiser. Emily immediately needs Justin to carry her into the house because she has to pee, giving Kevin the time and the privacy to clean up his vomit with his tie, which he then stuffs into his pocket.
Right before seeing “Heroes,” I read Arbery’s essay on his play in the Playbill, and was intrigued at how much I shared with him and the play I was about to see: We were both raised Roman Catholic, grew up in small towns — Wyoming for him, Iowa for me, although my hometown is much smaller than the 7,000 people of the “Heroes” hamlet — and our parents were super-conservative politically. A character in “Heroes” voted for Goldwater and once belonged to the John Birch Society, as did my own parents.
I mention all this because not for one moment in “Heroes” did I recognize anything resembling the Catholic world I grew up in, and I knew a lot of Catholics who like me were educated by dedicated nuns. This is not a negative. I’m always happy to be introduced to new cultures and alternate realities (it’s why I love opera), and clearly Arbery is writing from his own experience regarding a small Catholic college in the wilds of Wyoming that is run by a bunch of Opus Dei-ish fanatics. Who knew? And Wyoming, of all places! I also didn’t know that Catholics were at the heart of the white nationalist movement.
But Arbery hasn’t connected the dramatic dots between the puking scene, nutty Justin and the noise-belching house. In between those memorable scenes, he delivers some tired conservative arguments about abortion as murder, transgender fascism and the difference between voting for Donald Trump and Pat Buchanan. This latter showdown pits the calm conservative Gina (Michele Pawk, being calm) against the screechy conservative Teresa (Zoe Winters, being screechy), who also gets stuck explaining the play’s torturous title: the fourth turning is an era of “crisis,” which comes after periods of “security” (a.k.a. “high”), “awakening” and “unraveling.”
Amid all this Fox News bombast, Arbery clearly wants us to know that he has read Heidigger, Aquinas, Brueggemann, Descartes, Arendt and Sanger, not to mention Martin Diamond and Gerard Manley Hopkins. They’re all name-checked, if not quoted, when the characters aren’t saying the “Our Father” or lauding the imminent demise of Roe v. Wade.
“Heroes” is directed by Danya Taymor, who has the distinction of having brought to the stage three of the best plays of recent seasons: Jeremy O. Harris’s “Daddy,” Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” and Martyna Majok’s “Queens.” All playwrights should want Taymor to direct their plays.
Her choosing to direct “Heroes” is the fourth thing, after the house and Justin and Kevin’s puking, that kept me riveted. I had to wonder what compelled such a gifted director to direct such a play and then allow or compel such scenery-chomping performances from some of her actors. Did she not trust the material? Or was she letting us know the whole exercise is a wild farce?
Arbery, for his part, does pull back on one thing. The characters keep mentioning a solar eclipse they all want to witness in the near future. He could have had them waiting for the rapture or the apocalypse instead. Then again, he does give us the house that burps.