I saw *A Bright Room Called Day* at The Public Theater on 11/29/19. It's Tony Kushner's first play, written in 1985 and updated/revised for this production. It was directed by Oscar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public - - he directed the first professional production of the play, for the Eureka Theater in San Francisco. He commissioned Kushner's next play during the rehearsal period - - the next play was *Angels In America,* one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.
I bought my ticket back in September and then more or less forgot about it. I thought it would be a good experience for me to show up at the performance knowing nothing about the play. When was the last time I did that? I arrived at the theater, opened the playbill, and was knocked out by the cast list, which yes, did ring a bell from when I bought the ticket:
Linda Emond: wonderful actor I'd seen in a few things in New York. Grace Gummer: I'd seen her in a few things on TV, she's best known as the older sister of Mamie Gummer, and they're both best known as the daughters of Meryl Streep. Michael Urie: I'd seen him in many plays, most memorably as Rudi Gernreich in *The Temperamentals* and as Prior Walter in *Angels In America.* Nikki James: I saw her in her Tony-winning role in *The Book of Mormon.* And oh wow, Estelle Parsons: won the Oscar for *Bonnie and Clyde,* played Roseanne's mother on *Roseanne,* I saw her give a gut-punching performance in the lead role in *August: Osage County.* I got very excited indeed.
The play is about a group of young Communists living in Berlin in 1932 and 1933. Things don't turn out well for them, as you can imagine! The play was one of my favorite genres, a Glorious Mess. The last time I saw a new play by Kushner was in 2011, also at The Public, *The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.* I saw that with Richard and our friends John and David. I asked John, as we left the theater, "Did you like the play?" He said, "I liked all three plays."
It's not a question of length, though both these plays are about three hours long. It's a question of an overabundance of ideas, with never any concern about biting off more than he can chew. He keeps shoving the raw meat into his maw and he chews and he chews and he chews.
There were some wonderful moments. The cameo by Satan in the first act was delightful, bristling with energy, charm, and focus. It was beautifully staged by Eustis, with the lighting and set design doing something new and unexpected and tongues of actual flame waving along the back wall.
I thought of the last play I saw, *The End of Eddy.* It's not fair to compare them, they're chalk and cheese, but *The End of Eddy,* in comparison, seems so finely wrought, so pure, so marvelously clear in its expression and purpose. *A Bright Room Called Day* was more impressive, more ambitious - - but no, I would not say it's better.
I'll say this: the second act was much better than the first. A monologue by the Linda Emond character was head and shoulders the most satisfying moment of the show. I don't even remember what she was talking about, but it was direct and powerful. She got a small smattering of applause when she walked offstage, which you don't see in a play very often. This was followed by a scene with Michael Urie at the center, another satisfying moment of theatre. These are both great actors, but they were given great writing.
Parsons had a small role but totally took over (in the best way) when she was onstage. James was the central character, she gave a touching performance. She's best known for doing musicals, I'm sure it was a treat for her to show what great work she can do in a play.
The most groan-inducing element of the show was the Meta element. Meta is a technique wherein a work of art refers to itself. I'll give you an example in art history: in Velazquez's "Las Meninas," you see the Infanta Margaret Theresa in the center, with a few members of her court, her staff, a dog. You see Velazquez himself on the left, working on a very large canvas. He looks at "the viewer." And most delightful of all, there's a mirror on the wall at the back, showing what Velazquez is painting, the King and Queen. This is totally Meta.
My first experience with the word was in 1992. My then-boyfriend Alan told me about a conversation he had with his mother about a recent episode of *Northern Exposure.* She said, "Alan, I didn't understand what was happening at the end, where they were talking about being on a TV show. Why did they do that." He said, "Mom, that was totally Meta!" and he explained what Meta was.
Kushner uses Meta in this play by placing the playwright onstage, and another character brought in from 1985, when the play was written (her role didn't really make sense to me). The playwright isn't named Tony Kushner, but he's the man who wrote the play we're watching. He makes some references to things happening right now, in 2019. At one point he said, to the audience, "I'm sorry I made this play so long. I'm sure you'd much rather be home watching Chris Hayes or Rachel Maddow."
I'm officially tired of Meta, the writer writing about writing. This fey, ersatz intellectual, warmed-over Pirandello drivel does not serve the drama or draw us into the story or the characters. It only serves to make the author feel clever.
The playwright told the funny story of how he came up with the title, and I imagine it might be true? He was at home one night with the TV on in the background. PBS was showing a profile of choreographer Agnes de Mille, and they referenced a ballet she had done called *A Bright Room Called Day.* The playwright thought, "Hm, that's a great title. He later learned that he had misheard what was said, that the actual title of de Mille's ballet was *A Bridegroom Called Death.*