Review: Three Scenes in the Life of a Trotskyist, When a Leftist Would Rather Be Right

Andy Boyd’s world premiere drama plays the Tank.

Evan Maltby, Jeff Gonzalez, and Ben Schrager appear in Andy Boyd’s Three Scenes in the Life of a Trotskyist, directed by Jake Beckhard, at the Tank.
(© Nick Dove)

Have your politics changed, or has the world shifted around you? I ask myself that question all the time. And perhaps when no one is watching, so does Lev Trachtenberg, the protagonist of Andy Boyd’s brisk and illuminating political drama Three Scenes in the Life of a Trotskyist, now making its world premiere at The Tank.

The first scene depicts Lev (Jeff Gonzalez) in 1939 as the leader of City College’s small faction of followers of Leon Trotsky, the Communist Revolutionary exiled by Stalin following a power struggle. He does battle with the leader of the University Stalinists (a dour Ben Schrager) over the soul of Daniel (Evan Maltby), a fellow Jewish Brooklynite for whom Lev has taken a shine.

Flash forward to 1967 and Lev is a professor of Modernist literature at Columbia. A Black student (Charlie Hurtt, masterfully walking the line between innocent and menacing) asks for an extension on the eve of an important paper’s due date. He threatens to place Lev on a list of professors to be targeted for protest should he fail to comply. Lev hears echoes of Mao and the Cultural Revolution.

By 1980 Lev is the head of Ronald Reagan’s favorite think tank. He invites his old friend Daniel (now played by Michael Jay Henry) for a chat at his swanky Central Park West office. Daniel wonders what happened to turn a committed Marxist into a fire-breathing evangelist for the Right.

Jeff Gonzalez and Charlie Hurtt appear in Andy Boyd’s Three Scenes in the Life of a Trotskyist, directed by Jake Beckhard, at the Tank.
(© Nick Dove)

Lev is in good company. Bayard Rustin was a card-carrying Communist in the ‘30s, only to become a fervent anti-Communist later in life. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Christopher Hitchens was a columnist for The Nation and a reliable pugilist for the Left on shows like Firing Line. But by 2005 he was defending the invasion of Iraq in a debate against human bagpipe George Galloway, in front of a baying crowd of Baruch College Marxists in what I consider his greatest performance. We certainly shouldn’t forget the millions of Americans who have left the GOP in protest of its descent into a cult of personality. Are these people traitorous sellouts (as their MAGA critics would contend) or have they assessed the eroding landscape of American politics with clear eyes and fled to higher ground?

When it comes to Lev, Gonzalez strongly suggests the latter in a performance that oozes charisma and intelligence. Armed with probing eyes and a razor-sharp Brooklyn accent, Lev is an idealist consistently disappointed by a fallen world. He’s also a fighter, and here is where we glimpse the dark hunger driving him.

Upon learning of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the non-aggression treaty between Hitler and Stalin, Lev is elated. “I fucking knew it! You lose! Stalin’s a traitor! Stalin’s a shill, a fucking putz, a gangster, a fascist, fuck him, fuck you, fuck all of you! Trotsky wins again,” he shouts as he throws deli sandwiches at his adversaries. He’s like a Kansas City Chiefs player after winning the Super Bowl, perspiring pure testosterone. But what is he really celebrating? Poland will be divided and conquered, imperiling the lives of every Jew therein. The adrenaline rush of being correct is so intoxicating that not even this looming catastrophe can bring Lev down. Could this chemical addiction be the true cause of his defection to the triumphant Reagan-Thatcher Right?

Jeff Gonzalez, Ben Schrager, and Charlie Hurtt appear in Andy Boyd’s Three Scenes in the Life of a Trotskyist, directed by Jake Beckhard, at the Tank.
(© Nick Dove)

Director Jake Beckhard gives us room to ponder such questions with a less-is-more production that works well in the intimate confines of the Tank’s smaller stage. A desk and two chairs make up the bulk of M Picciuto’s set. Madeline Rosaler’s period-passing costumes deliver historical drama on an off-off-Broadway budget. The one major misstep is Leanna Keyes’s projections, which appear on a collage of protest signs on the upstage wall. While archival video serves to set the scene for each of the three periods, the appearance of portraits when names are mentioned during the scenes makes the proceedings feel a bit too much like a TED Talk.

It is a testament to the skill of this excellent cast (and especially Gonzalez) that Three Scenes never devolves into a lecture, even when Lev is at his most professorial. “Bureaucracy,” he tells Daniel, “Any bureaucracy, eventually comes to exist solely to perpetuate its own existence!” And as I sat in the audience surrounded by people who had been cowed into wearing face masks in 2024 (the Tank is the only major NYC venue, to my knowledge, to still require this), I thought, He’s right.

Three Scenes is not the story of one man led astray by his own success; it’s the story of a doctrinaire Left excommunicating its best and brightest in its quest to stamp out heresy. It’s not easy being expelled from the tribe, and I will always admire the brave individuals who risk expulsion with their inability to live a lie.

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