Two seemingly unrelated plays are running in repertory at the Pershing Square Signature Center: Otho Eskin's Final Analysis is a portrait of Vienna circa 1910 while Fraser Grace's Breakfast With Mugabe is set in contemporary Zimbabwe. Yet beyond their radically different settings, both plays examine a fundamental question: How do autocrats arrive at the conclusion that their vision of society takes priority over the humanity of others? Of the two plays, Breakfast With Mugabe offers a richer and fuller picture, although Final Analysis is not without its own charms.
Final Analysis focuses primarily on meetings between Sigmund Freud (Gannon McHale) and the composer Gustav Mahler (Ezra Barnes). The supremely misogynistic Mahler seeks Freud's help in resolving problems relating to his failing marriage to his wife, Alma (Elizabeth Jasicki with an unfalteringly patrician demeanor). Along the way we are introduced to a hirsute young Georgian Communist (a well-cast Tony Naumovski) and a troubled young artist who loves Wagner and hates Jews (Ryan Garbayo). Playwright Eskin tries to be coy about his identity, but it's pretty clear that we're watching a postadolescent Adolf Hitler. Garbayo appears vampiric in this role, dark rings surrounding his glazed-over eyes, like a school kid on too much Ritalin.
It can be great fun to imagine meetings between these incipient dictators and it gives actors an opportunity to menacingly utter lines like, "Remember my name. Remember it well. I call myself Stalin...Joseph Stalin!" (Buhahahaha *lightning clap*) Yet these encounters do little to illuminate the nascence of authoritarianism. When Hitler corners the Jewish-by-birth Mahler in a café and asks the composer to read his opera, Mahler calls it "worthless trash," thereby cementing Hitler's anti-Semitism. An encounter between the hopelessly aristocratic Alma Mahler and young Stalin is far more fruitful, brimming with class-driven sexual intrigue.
Much of the action of the play takes place in an "overpriced" coffeehouse, created by Lee Savage's simple, utilitarian set of café tables and chairs. When the play moves out of the coffeehouse, Annie Berman's projections do most of the heavy lifting, running the gamut from creepy moving carousels to grandiose cityscapes.
While the backdrop of a cultural capital rife with inequality and dominated by an out-of-touch elite feels particularly prescient on 42nd street, a final scene between Freud and Hitler set on a riverbank — "You've been a great help to me, doctor. If we hadn't met I probably would have disappeared into the Danube" — feels like a false epiphany at best.
Grace's Breakfast With Mugabe offers a much more nuanced look at a currently living autocrat. Eighty-nine-year-old Robert Mugabe has been the president of Zimbabwe since 1987. He was recently reelected for a seventh term in office in an election that many have deemed fraudulent. Breakfast With Mugabe imagines a series of psychoanalytic sessions between Mugabe (Michael Rogers) and a therapist descended from white farmers, Andrew Peric (Ezra Barnes) in the months leading to the 2002 presidential elections.
Mugabe believes he is being haunted by an Ngozi, a vengeful spirit of a person who died in a tragic way. His particular Ngozi is that of Josiah Tongogara, former commander of ZANLA, the guerrilla army that fought against white minority rule during the Zimbabwe War of Liberation. Widely expected to become Zimbabwe's first president, Tongogara was killed in a car accident just days after the war came to an end.
Admittedly, this play traffics in a complicated political history that may not be familiar to most Americans. Grace uses the psychoanalytic sessions to cover some major exposition, and it is easy to miss certain important details.
That said, it is impossible to miss the fact that Mugabe has some serious baggage and a palpable disdain for white people. Rogers hauntingly captures Africa's longest-serving president, a man who need not raise his voice to keep those around him walking on eggshells. This includes his wife, Grace Mugabe (Rosalyn Coleman), who plays the Queen of Hearts when her husband is away (this role is especially aided by Teresa Snider-Stein's simultaneously fantastical yet realistic costumes — think vintage Erykah Badu), but is a meek secretary-turned-second-wife in his presence.
So much of Rogers' performance is about the power of suggestion and softly spoken terror. When he does raise his voice, however, as in a scene set at a ZANU-PF political rally, the effect is truly terrifying: "Our party must strike fear into the heart of the white man." Mugabe's amplified voice reverberates throughout the theater (thanks to Colin Whitely's superior sound design). Did the consultation of the white psychoanalyst (and farmer) lead him to the realization that his government must be more aggressive in its campaign against white landowners?
Where Eskin's Freud-Hitler meeting seems like a throwaway conclusion, Grace allows much more time for his doctor-patient relationship to develop. The final meeting between Mugabe and Peric feels more like a trial at The Hague than a psychoanalytic session. Under the deft direction of David Shookhoff, it is crystal clear the way Mugabe's thought process unfolds, however wrongheaded.
Lovers of politics and history will likely find something to enjoy in both of these plays, but Breakfast With Mugabe is both the more challenging and rewarding of the two.