Playwrights Horizons, Mainstage Theater
416 West 42nd St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 10, $49-$89
Almost every day we see news about the cannibalistic infighting among the Democrats as the moderate, liberal, and progressive wings argue over policy and identity politics while the original field of more than two dozen candidates to challenge President Donald Trump is whittled down. What appeared to be a slam dunk has been hampered by uncertainty and venomous attacks on their own. Tired of watching them yelling at one another? Then perhaps it’s time to hear some Republicans ripping each other apart, as playwright and filmmaker Will Arbery twists audience expectations in his unnerving and wickedly poignant Heroes of the Fourth Turning, making its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons through November 10. New York City theatergoers who are used to seeing liberal-minded works that attack, and often deride, religious conservatives and Trump supporters are in for a surprise as Arbery, who was raised in a Christian conservative home in Dallas, Texas, brings together five Republicans who are also hampered by uncertainty and let loose some venomous attacks. “We are living in barbaric times,” Justin says.
It’s August 19, 2017, one week after the Charlottesville riot and two days before the solar eclipse, and a group of friends are mingling in Justin’s backyard in the small town of Lander, Wyoming, pop. 7,000. (The cozy evening set is by Laura Jellinek.) He’s hosting a party for Dr. Gina Presson (Michele Pawk), who has just been inaugurated president of Transfiguration College of Wyoming, the alma mater of Justin (Jeb Kreager), Emily (Julia McDermott), Kevin (John Zdrojeski), and Teresa (Zoë Winters). They all graduated Transfiguration over the past fifteen years, and all are in the path of totality, a scientific term relating to the eclipse as well as a metaphor for their attempts to find their individual paths in the world. Although the Republicans control the White House and Congress, the friends are concerned about the Democrats. “There are more of them. We lost the popular vote, by a lot. And they’re mobilizing. In many ways, they are in power. And they’re trying to wipe us out,” Justin says. “There’s a war coming,” Teresa warns.
Kevin, who drinks, smokes, and snorts too much, is an off-balance clod who spurts out whatever’s on his mind, which pisses off the cold, calculating Teresa, who has moved to Brooklyn. “Don’t say gross things in a holy space,” Teresa declares after he makes a rude remark. “This isn’t a holy space; it’s just Justin’s house,” Kevin replies. “The panopticon, Kevin, Catholicism is the panopticon. This is a holy space,” Teresa explains. “It’s also a profane space,” Kevin responds.
They bicker over the Virgin Mary, morality, identity, the LGBT community, Trump, Hillary Clinton, Barry Goldwater, abortion, Patrick Buchanan, and more, making many of the same arguments that liberals do; in fact, if you were to switch a few names or words here and there, it could be a battle between lefties. There’s also a sexual energy that looms, from a past secret to possible future hook-ups.
The verbal sparring heats up when the distinguished Gina joins them and is not happy about Teresa’s unyielding support of far-right ideologues. Gina — a right-wing mirror of Hillary Clinton, down to her personal style — tells her, “These new people on the right, they’re not true conservatives. They’re charlatans, they’re hucksters. And honestly, darling, they’re a bit racist.” Meanwhile, Emily, who is very ill with what appears to be Lyme disease, is somewhere in the middle, searching for the human element. “Wow, she is . . . I’m sorry but she is such a hypocrite,” she says of Teresa. “At the ceremony, she had a little audience and she was trying to get me to admit that my liberal friend was a bad person. And I’m sorry, but I think it’s unfair to argue that I should cut ties with someone just because they’re on the other side. I can’t see things in black-and-white like that. I have a full faith, it’s my rock, it’s my pain, it’s my everything — and I also am friends with whoever I want to be friends with.”
Arbery (Plano, Evanston Salt Costs Climbing) was inspired by William Strauss and Neil Howe’s 1997 book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy — What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny and his own family: He was raised in Texas by Catholic conservatives who were not a bunch of numbskull deplorables but fellow citizens with a different point of view. Teresa explains that there are four turnings, each one lasting about a generation: High, Awakening, Unraveling, and Crisis. In the play, as in America today, we are at Crisis mode. Not only won’t Republicans listen to Democrats, and liberals won’t listen to conservatives, but all the caterwauling within the same party is creating chaos; empathy and compassion have all but disappeared when it comes to politics. “Trump was made possible by the uneducated. . . . Liberty is being attacked, by both sides, and it’s tragic to see. Polarities make way for a tyrant,” Gina says, but Teresa proclaims, “Trump is a Golem molded from the clay of mass media and he’s come to save us all.”
Danya Taymor’s (Daddy, Pass Over) sharp, eagle-eyed direction smooths over some rough patches and carefully avoids turning the play into the kind of political posturing and manufactured conflicts we see on television news and social media, and monologues delivered by the three actresses are downright exhilarating, even if your personal opinions are completely contrary to theirs. In fact, the three female characters are stronger than the two males, and that shows in the acting; McDermott (Epiphany, Queens), Tony winner Pawk (A Small Fire, Hollywood Arms), and Winters (White Noise, An Octoroon) kick the men’s butts. But the real star of the show just might be sound designer Justin Ellington; the play begins with a blaring gunshot, and Ellington later lets loose a shrill, mysterious explosion of loud noise several times, a clarion call that perhaps is meant to wake us up to what is happening to every one of us, no matter who you plan to vote for in 2020.