In his pre-show speech, director Brian Katz warns us that his production of A Bright Room Called Day at the Custom Made Theatre Co. runs two hours and 40 minutes with intermission — what he calls "short for a Tony Kushner play."
This is the Tony Kushner, of course, who brought us Angels in America, the seven-hour epic that, since its 1991 premiere, arguably stands unequalled in American drama in terms of societal impact. That play tackled AIDS in the lyrical, complex, and ultimately hopeful way that America required at that moment; A Bright Room Called Day takes on what is surely another white whale for this gay, Jewish, and rabidly intellectual playwright: the rise of Hitler.
The Big H never appears in the play, except in the projected photos and film clips Kushner's demanding script requires. But he asserts his presence in more menacing ways. The characters, regular people in the Weimar Republic, talk about him constantly, belittling him as "just another flunky for German capital" or dehumanizing him — his mustache is "not made of hair" but "something hard and shiny, beetle wings."
But those insults only stoke fear and cement myth. Kushner's characters want to stop Hitler, and at first they believe they can, but then, of course, they can't. The play, then, is a chronicle of encroaching fear, a story of capable, politically engaged friends who must go their separate ways in order to survive.
At the beginning, they're a group of middle-class artists and Bohemians whose cerebral political debates are studded with lines of sublime poetry—you know, "regular" people for Tony Kushner. But then their jokes about who boasts the most proletarian cred give way to more urgent conflicts about political activism: How much are we obliged to sacrifice for our beliefs? These leftists, if they spoke less well, wouldn't be out of place in our own city, where left-of-center political inclinations are taken for granted even as exact beliefs — and, more importantly, commitments — range broadly.
Two women anchor Bright Room. Agnes (Xanadu Bruggers) is an actress who at first "doesn't have a political bone in her body," until one day when the sight of Communist propaganda makes her "lungs go all tight" — in a good way. (She volunteers to perform an agitprop skit for the party.) Zillah (Maggie Ballard) is a young American woman of 1990 who travels to Berlin, hoping that understanding the Nazis will help her understand more contemporary evils: Pat Buchanan, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan. She's paranoid — sleep, for her, is a luxury of the bourgeoisie — but brilliant in her craziness. Studying a photo of a Nazi rally, she discovers one woman in the crowd who's not giving the salute, and in a sense, Zillah spends the play "calling to her: across a long dead time: to touch a dark place, to scare myself a little, to make contact with what moves in the night, 50 years after."
Though "only" two hours and 40 minutes, Bright Room is a juggernaut of a play. Its titanic ideas, gorgeous language, and complex, interwoven character arcs require a theater company that can make esoteric language pulsate with life, that can bring clarity and a sense of narrative purpose to scenes that might otherwise sound like Tony Kushner showing off how smart he is.
Unfortunately, Custom Made is not quite that theater company. The actors don't make Kushner's difficult lines sound natural, let alone vital. Once in a while, a poetic moment emerges from the fray — for example, the notion of "seasons of history," that we should "weather the changes in the political climate with as much composure as we weather changes in the weather." And the cast does bring out one of the play's strengths: that, in contrast to much of today's drama, political and philosophical debates here are moments of urgent human connection. But most of the time, the actors simply don't make bold enough choices or commit fully to their parts. Characters that should be seething with rage or flamboyant in their quirks are always blander than they should be, creating a mismatch between what they say and how they act. If they don't care as much as they ought about what they say, it becomes difficult for the audience to do the same.
In Bright Room, history's most notorious dictator eludes understanding in his own time just as much as he does in retrospect. But only more fully realized characters could convey this play's most compelling message: If we want to understand how evil comes to power, we must look at the sides of ourselves we so desperately want to ignore.