"There's a war coming," warns Teresa, a right-wing blogger and one of four young Catholics gathered to celebrate the promotion of a beloved professor to the presidency of the small Wyoming college from which they graduated. In a time when the president of the United States tweets out threats of civil war, it is hard not to take her prophecy seriously. She and her former classmates discuss our fracturing nation from a conservative perspective in Will Arbery's exhilarating new play Heroes of the Fourth Turning, now making its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons.
Don't be put off by the clunky title: It comes from the generational theory devised by William Strauss and Neil Howe that views American history as a cycle of four generational types: prophets, nomads, heroes, and artists. Like her idol Steve Bannon, Teresa (a pugnacious, articulate, thoroughly exhausting Zoë Winters) is obsessed with this theory, especially the idea that the next "heroes" (those who will emerge victorious from a crisis, or "fourth turning," to reshape the world) are millennials (Strauss and Howe coined this term for the generation born between 1982 and 2004). Hardened in the trenches of Twitter, Teresa very much wants conservatives to triumph in the fourth turning by using the weapons of the secular left, but her former classmates have different ideas.
Justin (an eerily self-possessed Jeb Kreager) thinks it wiser to retreat from the world while the secular left devours itself in internecine conflicts about identity. In sharp contrast to Justin's mountain-man machismo, Kevin (a messy, pitiable John Zdrojeski) is a rudderless wisp of an incel who doesn't feel like a hero at all. Emily (an almost implausibly adorable Julia McDermott) hopes we can avoid war altogether: She has a bunch of liberal friends and she's not willing to condemn them as "bad people" the way Teresa so easily does. The political bleeds into the personal as the fraught history between these characters reveals itself over the course of one whiskey-soaked, adrenaline-charged night.
The most live-wire confrontation of the play takes place between Teresa and Dr. Presson (a motherly and imperious Michele Pawk), the new school president they've come to toast. Presson loathes Trump (as do most of the characters in this play…even though they voted for him). She lambastes Teresa for adopting Steve Bannon's white-identity politics, but Teresa hits back, dissecting the professor's notion that her conservatism was always about ideas over identity. Winters and Pawk take no prisoners in this epic battle of words between student and teacher, and it is breathtaking to witness.
A play about Catholic intellectuals debating the future of the conservatism might seem it was written just for Ross Douthat, but Heroes aims at a much wider audience. Judging by the incredulous guffaws and gasps emanating from the house, it is clear that many are encountering these ideas for the very first time, and that makes this play thrilling. In its setting and characters, Heroes of the Fourth Turning is the inverse of Richard Nelson's endless Rhinebeck panorama. (Can an off-Broadway audience ever really be surprised by the political musings of Hudson Valley liberals?) Where Nelson indulges our narcissism, Arbery challenges us to look beyond our limited vantage point and wrestle with well-articulated counter perspectives.
Director Danya Taymor serves this wordy script with an unobtrusive staging that keeps the focus on the performers, all of whom fully inhabit their characters. This is some of the best acting happening in New York at the moment.
Through design, Taymor creates a realistic world in which the fantastic seems to be lurking just beneath the surface. Laura Jellinek fashions an authentic backyard for Justin's austere mountain home (the location of the party). Isabella Byrd sparsely lights that space, with the brightest illumination around the meager back porch, but with plenty of shadows in which Kevin hides his shame. Sarafina Bush costumes them to suggest their post-graduation trajectories (plaid decorated with a sad necktie for Kevin, an audacious white pantsuit for Teresa). Compared with Arbery's Plano, Heroes exists in a far less magical world, with one major exception (Justin Ellington's unsettling, mysterious sound design suggests the danger just beyond this cocoon of conservatism).
Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a tough watch, but it is absolutely necessary as America's competing tribes retreat into fortresses of affirmation. Only the most self-deluded liberals will fail to recognize the kernel of truth in these critiques of secular progressivism, with its emphasis on protean identity and the hedonistic pursuit of happiness. Certainly, audiences of all political inclinations will recognize and relate to something more universal in the lost, lonely characters of Heroes: fear — fear of their fellow Americans, fear of what comes next, and fear that they do not have what it takes to rise to that moment.