Tony Kushner's A Bright Room Called Day was first presented as a workshop in 1985 at New York's Theatre 22, before receiving its premiere at San Francisco's Eureka Theatre in 1987, directed by Oskar Eustis — who runs New York's Public Theater. It's no coincidence that in 1990, Eustis was helping to develop another Kushner work here in Los Angeles in the Mark Taper Forum's New Works Festival, which would also premiere up north at the Eureka soon after. That was a segment of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.
Though Bright Room is micro and Angels is macro, each stems from the now familiar circuitry of Kushner's remarkable brain. Both are politically charged fever-dreams in which the devil arrives, Faustlike.
In Angels in America, the devil is the homophobic, homosexual lawyer Roy Cohn. As a government prosecutor, Cohn led the charge for the controversial 1951 espionage trial of alleged Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Both were executed in 1953, thanks, in large part to Cohn's efforts, though the pair's children have since provided evidence that their mother, at least, may have been set up by the government. Cohn also prosecuted leftists during Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s. Cohn had been recommended to McCarthy by an admirer (with whom Cohn was alleged to have had sexual trysts) — FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Denying to his final breath that he was gay, Cohn died of AIDS in 1986, and some of Angels' scenes take place in the hospital room where he expired.
These epic, human contradictions and hypocrisies expand upon Kushner's ongoing debate between political morality and personal expedience, which appears, in miniature, in Bright Room, currently being presented by Coeurage Theatre Company at The Lost Studio near Hancock Park.
In that play, set in 1932 Berlin, the devil is simply the devil, summoned in a kind of séance to the apartment of actress Agnes (Teya Patt) and her artist friends by a one-eyed Hungarian film cameraman named Husz (Miles Warner). "This age wanted heroes," Husz says. "It got us instead."
While in the presence of these left-leaning dilettantes who constitute a fraying and increasingly persecuted community as Hitler ascends to power, the devil has a psychotic episode (a nicely lunatic performance by Bert Rotundo). [Editor's note: the preceeding two paragraphs were corrected Sept. 4. See note at bottom.]
"You see," says the devil pithily, "it's not the danger that you see that's the danger."
In a scathing New York Times review of the Public Theater's Bright Room in 1991, Frank Rich accused Kushner of fatuously linking the burning of the Reichstag and the genocidal policies of the Third Reich to President Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal — during which administration officials secretly facilitated the unlawful sale of arms to Iran while using the profits to fund the Nicaraguan Contras — and Reagan's decision to restrict federal funding of AIDS research.
This connection was inferred by Rich because of a contemporary Jewish character from Long Island, named Zillah Katz, who sat on the stage and witnessed the play's scenes dramatizing the end of Weimar Germany and the rise of Hitler while she intermittently spouted screeds directed at the Reagan administration.
When the play was performed in London, Zillah's attacks were redirected at Reagan's closest ally, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps the only review more withering than Rich's was of that London production via The Guardian's Michael Billington — a review so scathing that Kushner chose at that time to stop reading reviews, as he told the L.A. Weekly in 2003.
But the criticism had an impact. In that same interview, Kushner also said that he felt that Bright Room would be stronger without Zillah, and that he was considering writing such a version so that the play might more closely resemble the work that inspired it, Bertolt Brecht's 1938 The Private Life of the Master Race.
This is the version currently being presented by Coeurage Theatre Company.
Production designer Tito Fleetwood Ladd has a wall running behind the stage. From the audience's view, on the left (naturally) the wall contains a collage of Soviet posters. This blends into the art on the right, which consists of German Nazi placards. Though the characters populating the play — sundry artists and actors, and one phantomlike, homeless old woman (Kim Reed) who drops in through an open window — range from being politically apathetic to left-leaning, the stylistic similarity between the "official" art of the Soviets and the Nazis is striking.
Between the scenes of growing personal and interpersonal tension among this community of liberals as Hitler, elected democratically, begins persecuting all forms of political dissent, director Jeremy Lelliott intersperses scenes with ghoulish, dance-of-death choreography (by Carly Wielstein), which gives this production its Cabaret-like vivacity.
Joseph V. Calarco's sound design is deliberately anachronistic, with American jazz, an ironic lullaby by Tom Waits and a rendition sung live of Kurt Weill's "The Ballad of Mack the Knife." On occasion the recorded music is imposed upon a character's soliloquized ruminations, as though for mood, as though the idea of merely listening to Kushner's words is asking too much of an audience. That idea — that the poetical constructions aren't themselves a form of music worth hearing sans accompaniment — and some problems with enunciation, slightly plague this otherwise well-acted production.
It's being staged as our secretary of state accuses the president of Syria of being like Hitler. This is not so different from Kushner's earlier version of this play, which essentially accused Reagan of being Hitler, and then Thatcher of being Hitler. As the play itself points out, Hitler created a standard for evil that's no longer workable. Comparing any horrible act to Hitler's atrocities, as has been done and overdone, renders any comparison to Hitler as fatuous — to borrow Frank Rich's word. Things were easier to comprehend when Reagan's philosophies were advanced by the Bushes, but when Obama, who was elected on his promise of change and hope, is either acting or being prodded to act in much the same way as his predecessors, what does Kushner's play actually mean in the year 2013?
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It is clearly a study in evil, now a study without Zillah's grating rhetoric, a study enhanced by its portrait of how a Satanic cult such as the Third Reich can send self-interested humanitarians — the people who populate this play — scurrying for the border. For all its political charge, I'm not convinced the play has a resonant political calling. If it's an echo of Ionesco's Rhinoceros, that people must stand up to the bullies and their acquiescent mob, who now is the Third Reich? Whose hands are clean enough to make that charge? Whose are not bloodstained? A political play is about power and its abuses, whereas Bright Room spends most of its scenes depicting human weakness. It asks the unspoken question, if the Third Reich were to emerge on our shores in 2013, what would we do?
Even in this less than perfect production, that question lingers. It invades our dreams, like music.
A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY | By Tony Kushner | Presented by Coeurage Theatre Company at the Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Ave. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. l Sun., 7:30 p.m.; through Sept. 15 | (323) 871-5830
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misidentified the actor portraying Husz. He is Miles Warner. We regret the error.