A Bright Room Called Day

Theatre of NOTE’s production of an early Tony Kushner play leaves Meg Donivan in the dark.

After seeing Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day, now at Theatre of NOTE, it would be easy to say “Maybe there was a reason why Kushner’s 20-year-old-play has never seen stage lights here in L.A.,” and leave it at that. Because–and I realize that saying this about any work from the author of Angels in America borders on sacrilege–Bright Room is rather a muddled mess as a play. And, in this case, as a production as well.

A Bright Room Called Day encompasses two stories. The first introduces us to a group of artists in Berlin on New Year’s Eve, 1932. It’s a safe and happy time, and the colorful group is celebrating in the home of character actress Agnes Eggling (played solidly by Sarah Lilly). Her lover Husz (Stewart Skelton), a Hungarian filmmaker, is there, as are the flamboyant homosexual Baz (Thom Cagle), the sexually-ambiguous painter Anabella (Cathy Carlton), and the film femme fatale Paulinka (Dorie Barton). They all swill vodka and chat about the rosy future of Germany, paying little attention to that inconsequential clown named Hitler who runs the comical Nazi party.

We all know what comes next, but these intelligent, informed, creative types don’t see it coming. The play quite literally follows the “unbelievable” progression of Hitler’s control of Germany. “He offers a confused and terrified and constipated people what they want,” says the simpering Baz. “They’re in love with the shine on his boots!” Each member of this tight group deals with the incomprehensible forces of evil eclipsing their country and their lives in his own way, whether it’s by taking action (Katharine Gibson and Jonathan Klein have some terrific moments as Communist party workers), running away, or becoming paralyzed by fear.

Yet there’s no drive in the action of this first story, which is linked together by hideously slow-moving projections chronicling and commenting on the historical time frame. Nor is there any consistency of tone, which isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, except that the shifts simply don’t work. The play is primarily realistic and straightforward, but there’s also an old lady (Pamela Gordon) who crawls in through Agnes’ window and babbles annoyingly. Or maybe she’s a ghost from another play. The devil comes in, too–where from, I’m not sure, but Albert Dayan is pretty funny in the role. Gleason Bauer has made some strong directorial choices that stand out in the otherwise murky evening–the devastatingly beautiful Barton’s black poodle narration is worth the price of admission–but what effect does this have on the play as a whole? (Bauer also designed the set, and the costumes with Pascale Nyby; lighting is by Jesse H. Rivard and Jonathan Klein. All of this work is impressive.)

And then we come to the story of Zillah, a modern-day Angeleno played with stark ferocity by Tamar Fortgang. The deal is that this character is supposed to link the events of pre-war Germany to the here and now–only the “now,” when Kushner was writing, was the Reagan-era 1980s. So the producers brought aboard writer Steven Leigh Morris to update the play. Zillah is a lady who, especially in Fortgang’s hands, is quite interesting and has a diverting tale to tell. However, her story’s tie to the gang back in Berlin is pretty darn tenuous, and really does nothing to make A Bright Room Called Day any more illuminating.

Some talented people put a lot of effort into producing this play. But, as to why, I’m sort of in the dark.

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