Tony Kushner’s vintage play, “A Bright Room Called Day,” which the Public Theater staged in 1991, is now being revived by the Public and impressively mounted by director Oskar Eustis. It is full of political ideas, but the trouble is that the play is quite a muddle, and only on occasion do the ideas break through effectively. Kushner, whose later “Angels in America” is a classic, has done some tinkering, and as a result there is added humor, so at least we also get some laughs along with the deciphering.
“A Bright Room Called Day” is on two levels, one a play within a play depicting left-wing scrambling in Berlin in the early 1930s in the face of the rise of Hitler. The other is the 1980s take on the creation of the play, and although this was the Ronald Reagan era, Kushner has now managed to inject some information projecting into the current Trump era. The authoritarian menace in Germany, hardly comparable as a warning to America under Reagan in the first place, is a bit more relevant to the authoritarianism of Trump, but still nowhere near any accuracy measured against the Nazi terror.
What Kushner has now mainly done is create a stand-in for himself as playwright Xillah, amusingly portrayed by Jonathan Hadary, who intervenes at various points to comment, sometimes amusingly, about what’s happening in his play and what the characters should be doing. The discourse is on occasion directed to the audience, but also with the outspoken Zillah (a name not to be confused with Xillah), who has her own loudly voiced ideas on how the play within the play should evolve.
During the 1930s portion there are a series of headlines flashed on a screen to indicate Hitler’s rise, including the infamous Reichstag fire blamed on the communists. We meet those who are endangered by their actions or associations. Linda Emond plays Annabella, a militant painter. Michael Esper is Vealtninc, a Trotskyist. Michael Urie is Gregor, who is gay, and although he has the unlikely opportunity to shoot Hitler in a cinema, he is afraid to pull the trigger because he knows he will be killed. Grace Gummer plays Paulinka, a self-centered actress hooked on psychoanalysis and mainly worrying about herself.
The most interesting of those in Xillah’s play is Agnes, vigorously enacted by Nikki M. James, but she is hesitant when it comes to action. Her sympathies are with the comrades, but she is greatly conflicted and too afraid to become an activist, which makes her reluctant to allow her apartment to be used as a safe house for those forced to go underground.
Estelle Parsons shows that at 92 she can still command a stage in paying Die Alte, an old woman squatter who is desperately trying to survive as best she can. Parsons makes the most of her plight and of mysterious comments of foreboding that she forcefully delivers.
The effort to interweave the time periods results in awkwardness, and also lengthens the drama to its two hours and 45 minutes. The attempt to force relevance to our Trump era also seems mechanical, although Kushner gets a laugh out of the horror voiced by Zillah when she learns what will happen. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-967-7555. Reviewed November 30, 2019.