Header Ads

Breaking News

Review: In ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning,’ a Red-State Unicorn

They would not at first seem so different from you and me.

Teresa works in media and lives with an actress roommate. Kevin has a stultifying job but spends his off-hours watching “Portlandia” and devouring internet porn. Justin reads a lot of books and worries about the state of the country.

Yet unless you’re a hard-line Catholic conservative, you probably don’t have much in common with these people, who were undergrads together at Transfiguration College of Wyoming: an anti-abortion, anti-L.G.B.T. school where sex and cellphones (and federal funding) are forbidden.

And unless you live in an alternative theatrical universe programmed by David Mamet for The Heritage Foundation, you’ve probably never seen their like onstage.

That’s one of the things that makes Will Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” which opened on Monday at Playwrights Horizons, something of a red-state unicorn. The astonishing new play explores the lives and ideas of conservatives with affection, understanding and deep knowledge — if not, ultimately, approval.

As such, it would be a welcome corrective almost regardless of its quality. When conservatives show up in contemporary plays, they are usually laughable blowhards, whining billionaires or troglodyte parents whose children scorn them. What use are they to anyone, even liberals who want to understand what they’re up against?

But Teresa (Zoë Winters), Kevin (John Zdrojeski) and Justin (Jeb Kreager) are serious, attractive, articulate young people — and troubled in ways we usually find sympathetic, at least in characters who didn’t vote for Donald J. Trump. (Kevin vomited after doing so.)

Mr. Arbery brings them together, seven years after graduation, for a reunion at Justin’s house; he has stayed in town and works at Transfiguration. Also at the party — which celebrates the appointment of their mentor, Gina Presson, as president of the school — is Gina’s daughter, Emily (Julia McDermott), who escaped Wyoming but has now returned with a debilitating mystery illness. During the course of a somewhat drunken dark night of the soul, the four friends catch up, argue, have crises and regroup.

Yet “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” directed with nerves of steel by Danya Taymor, is no narcissistic midlife reunion dramedy like “The Big Chill.” The characters are still young enough to believe they can make significant changes in their lives — and in the life of their country, which they think and talk about constantly.

It’s no accident that Mr. Arbery sets the play just after the 2017 murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va.; very much on everyone’s mind are the limits of the conservatism they inhaled and exalted at Transfiguration.

For Teresa, the limits come from within the movement: a movement weakened by craven soy boys.” An Ann Coulter wannabe and self-professed Bannonite, she is a lightning-fast debater, a glib liar and a talented polemicist. (“Liberals are empathy addicts,” she says.) She sees herself as a hero of the “Fourth Turning” — the pseudoscientific theory that predicts political change on a generational timetable. As such, she is almost erotically fixated on the idea of near-term culture war, or literal war, as both rapture and ravishment.

Her three friends stake a variety of positions on the issues that feed Teresa’s outrage machine. Saintly Emily, who worked in a Chicago “pro-life women’s advocacy organization,” nevertheless counts among her friends an abortion-rights activist and — oh, the horror! — a drag queen. Justin, who packs a revolver and keeps a rifle handy, may argue that “proximity to L.G.B.T. is a threat to Christian children and families,” but he cares lovingly for Emily with no expectation of anything in return.

And Kevin is the screw-up, the holy fool, struggling to locate a viable philosophy in the aftermath of the collision of his education and real life. “Why the heck do we have to love the Virgin Mary?” he asks, almost heretically. Also: Why can’t Christians test their faith by befriending the enemy instead of hating or avoiding him? And, most important: Why can’t he get a girlfriend?

The conflicts among the four friends, and eventually with the formidable Gina as well, are carried out in a series of arguments and arias the playwright aptly likens to a fugue. And though the play is peppered with theatrical interruptions — a song, a story, some ominous sounds, fits of aggression and feints of emotion — you will not find “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” very entertaining if you don’t believe in the dramatic potential of debate.

Ms. Taymor’s uncompromising production makes the strongest possible case for that potential. As the play takes place at night on the edge of the Wyoming wilderness, most of Laura Jellinek’s set is forbidding empty space; the lighting (by Isabella Byrd) is unrelievedly dark. Justin Ellington’s sensational sound design is almost another haunted voice in the fugue. In this ominous environment, Ms. Taymor moves the actors around like chess pieces, always threatening or defending.

She also encourages them to dig for the emotional realities beneath their discourse. We get a strong sense, for instance, of how mandated premarital celibacy has warped everyone’s temperament, especially Kevin’s; Mr. Zdrojeski, in a big breakthrough performance, makes the tightrope walk of pathos and ludicrousness thrilling to watch. And Mr. Kreager, though much more contained, likewise backfills Justin’s political positions with longings he can hardly name.

Indeed, the conflict between engagement and recusal that is at the heart of the characters’ questioning of conservatism is also at the heart of their unhappiness. Even Teresa worries that her wedding won’t be beautiful because she is “too private” with her love. And though Gina (Michele Pawk in a terrific cameo) is a charismatic and even poetic leader, you have to question, as you look into Emily’s eyes, what kind of a mother she’s been.

But insights into the devil are not the point here, even if Teresa calls Mr. Trump “a Golem molded from the clay of mass media” who has “come to save us all.” (Gina calls him “chemotherapy”: vile but necessary.) To Mr. Arbery, conservatives aren’t devils at all; their bad behavior is much like everyone else’s. So is their good behavior. Surely it’s not irrelevant that his father, Glenn Arbery, is the president of Wyoming Catholic College, a school apparently identical in philosophy and location to the play’s Transfiguration.

That autobiographical likeness — also a feature of Mr. Arbery’s “Plano” — gives “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” an aura of absolute authenticity. It may also give the play a slight aura of overindulgence; there are probably a few turns too many in its characters’ convolutions.

What makes it riveting anyway is its eagerness to admit, and to subtly criticize by juxtaposition, all arguments. When Kevin, confused and self-loathing though he may be, articulates the desire to “let two competing facts exist in the same space,” he might as well be speaking for the play. Without two competing facts, we wouldn’t have much of a drama — or a democracy.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning

Tickets Through Oct. 27 at Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan; 212-279-4200, playwrightshorizons.org. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes.

Source link

No comments