A Bright Room Called Day.
By Tony Kushner.
Presented through December 22 at The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street – at Astor Place. For more information
including how to purchase tickets click here.
Directed by Oskar Eustis
David Rockwell – Scenic Design
Susan Hilferty – Co-Costume Design
Sarita Fellows – Co-Costume Design
John Torres – Lighting Design
Bray Poor – Sound Design
Lucy Mackinnon – Projection Design
Linda Emond – Annabella Gotchling
Michael Esper – Vealtninc Husz
Grace Gummer – Paulinka Erdnuss
Jonathan Hadary – Xillah
Michael Urie – Gregor Bazwald
Bill Heck – Gregor Bazwald (starting December 14)
Nikki M. James – Agnes Eggling
Crystal Lucas-Perry – Zillah
Nadine Malouf – Rosa Malek
Mark Margolis – Gottfried Swetts
Estelle Parsons – Die Alte
Max Woertendyke – Emil Traum.
In the updated, powerfully heroic and human, exquisitely mournful version of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day, now at The Public Theater, finding a determinable, moored center is not always an easy thing to do. For one thing, the play itself, first produced in 1985, has been fiercely summoned to the present. “Things are so bad people want to do this play!” says Xillah (an endearing Jonathon Hadary), who acts as a sort of stand-in for the play’s author and who exists in the here and now, in 2019. Then there’s his counterpart, Zillah, who, according to Xillah, was the reason the original production was not entirely successful, or as she herself tells us, “I’m this author-surrogate interruptive-oppositional someone-or-other to whom the playwright neglected to give even a trace of a backstory…” Zillah (a charming Crystal-Lucas Perry) and Xilla hover over Bright Room, debating the characters’ choices and behaviors, and creating a palpable and fluid (sometimes teary, sometimes bloody) through line from the Berlin of 1931 and 1932, where the main action of the play is set, to our own country’s current, riven, portentous moment. When he first wrote Bright Room, Kushner saw parallels between the government of Ronald Reagan and Hitler’s storming of Germany’s Weimar Republic. Now, as the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis, who also directed Bright Room, puts it in his Playbill note, the “warnings that seemed apocalyptic in 1985 now look remarkably prescient.” Or as Zillah, nee Kushner, says, the “NAZIS ARE IN THE FUCKING STREETS.”
It’s enough to force an author—at least one with Kushner’s searing serio-comic gifts, sense of historical sweep, and rich, naturalistic poetic sensibility—to consider forswearing the narrative realism he had previously sworn to uphold (“I don’t write ghoulies and ghosties anymore…” says Xillah) so he can address the ills not only of Reagan’s America but Trump’s, too. And to try and redirect or repurpose—through Zillah and Xillah’s contemporary interventions—the life of Bright Room’s most desperate, vulnerable character, Agnes Eggling, the woman who lives in, and will not move out of, those bright but clearly doomed Berlin rooms.
Eggling, played with a furious emotional abandon by Nikki M. James, is the one person among her youthful, artistic friends, who seems gripped by a terrible cultural inertia, moored by fear, and, more worryingly, by a terrible desire to please and accommodate, and, above all, do no wrong. Kushner, like all inherently moral writers, displays an immediate, unconditional disdain for people whose impulses are to thoughtlessly appease authority. But for so many others, whose ethical lapses come at great personal cost, Kushner displays a solemn, if conflicted, sympathy. It’s a compassion that creates some of Bright Room’s most commanding moments, particularly the scenes that involve Michael Urie’s note-perfect portrayal of Gregor Bazwald. Bazwald, a homosexual member of Agnes’s coterie, becomes faced with maybe the most consequential ethical dilemma in the play—and, potentially, the course of history.
Are Kushner’s Doppelgänger Zillah and his new best friend Xillah able to go back in time, that is to the original scripting of the play, and rewrite Agnes’s fate? Are they able to help Agnes resist the stormtroopers by growing a more tightly coiled moral spine, one that will allow her to become clear-eyed and definingly defiant? And by aiding Agnes, will they, by inference, be assisting the rest of us, particularly those who lived through the 80’s and are now faced with the political ghoulies that are its legacy?
The answers to these questions do not disappoint, but you have to wait for them. They come at the very end of the play, during the epilogue, and completely uproot Bright Room’s objective, that is, the main thrust of the narrative. Kushner reaches back through time, his own and Germany’s, and manages to address not only Agnes’s predicament but that of the only other people in the theater truly capable of meaningful action. (I, for one, did not see this coming. And, from the look on Zillah’s face, neither did she.) And this turn manages to introduce the play’s second thrill of the evening, the first being Mark Margolis’s triumphant, literally fire-brimmed, appearance as Gottfried Swetts, who serves as the devil incarnate. (After being asked if his journey had been long, he replies, “Not long, no. I have taken up temporary residence in this country.”)
Of course, it seems perfectly logical that Bright Room’s final, altogether striking, moral crescendo is orchestrated by Zillah and Xillah. These two meta-commentators give Bright Room its explicit, historical arc. But they also manage, each time they appear, unseen by the other characters on stage, to take us out of the more compelling, less presentational play unfolding in the Berlin apartment. Some of Kushner’s most bravura writing comes in the Zillah and Xillah sections, but they never fit neatly within the inner construct of the play. Nor are they meant to, which is what is both, in equal parts, so compelling and discomforting about the play’s construction.
Eustis directs with a sure hand, eliciting impeccable performances from the cast. He manages to map out a production, in its use of pacing, emphasis and emotion that successfully accommodates the soaring, Shakespeare-like demands of the script, both in terms of language and narrative force. The majestic intricately constructed set (David Rockwell) immediately evokes a lost, abandoned time and place. And the lighting and sound design (John Torres and Bray Poor) evokes subtle, domestic moods with the same assurance as the thunder of the supernatural. Of course, they would have to. With Kushner, it’s all hands on the theatrical deck. He means to infuriate, provoke, lacerate, and entertain. But most of all, he wants to help us see who we really are, as well as where we’ve come from. And we are always so much the better for having shared a moment or two of our shared history in his company.