There used to be a time when writers of dramas about Big Issues could get away with seeing the world in two colors: black and white. That's not to say that more complex viewpoints didn't exist in plays dealing with such meaty subjects as conflict, human rights, and racial inequality. Athol Fugard's Blood Knot and George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House (both of which were recently revived at the American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre respectively) are cases in point. But audiences in former eras tolerated a certain amount of didacticism with their drama, even if they disagreed with the playwright's stance. Sometimes — as in the case of Clifford Odets' pro-worker play Waiting for Lefty and Bertolt Brecht's antiwar drama Mother Courage — it was even welcome.
Though some polemical works like Mother Courage are regarded as classics and frequently staged, there persists a widespread aversion to the morality play in the current theatrical landscape. The wave of negative critical response to the New York production of Caryl Churchill's drama about U.S. foreign policy illustrates this trend. Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? "may be written in the oblique, fragmentary manner that is typical of Ms. Churchill's recent work," Charles Isherwood wrote in his recent review for The New York Times, "but it still feels like a sledgehammer to the skull."
Perhaps more now than ever, writers interested in exploring social and political themes through the medium of the stage are taking to heart this distaste for being bashed over the head with an Important Message. Driven by the belief that drama should wake somnambulant liberal-minded theatergoers from their self-satisfied slumbers by challenging stereotypes and received wisdoms, many contemporary writers of Big Issue plays make it their business to shake us up with unorthodox viewpoints. Just as Mickle Maher has unnerved Chicago audiences in recent months by turning George W. Bush into an almost sympathetic character in his drama The Strangerer, so Edward Albee makes us feel compassion for a man who commits bestiality in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
Stephen Brown doesn't go as far as Albee with his wide-ranging theatrical exploration of the dark crevices of human sexuality. Yet the British playwright's 360-degree view of society's treatment of pedophiles similarly challenges audiences' expectations. By balancing an intimate and empathetic portrait of a man facing imprisonment for "deviant" sexual behavior with an examination of the ins and outs of the prison system, Brown challenges us to reconsider well-worn truisms about sex offenders and the role of rehabilitation. But despite its in-depth, unflinching view of a difficult subject, this Big Issues play ends up being a little smaller than it should, owing to certain shortcomings in the script and director Dylan Russell's American premiere production for TheatreFIRST.
Future Me tells the story of Peter, a successful London lawyer with a closeted interest in prepubescent girls. When his computer malfunctions and sends an e-mail bearing an explicit attachment to his entire address book, the unwitting spammer finds himself hauled off to prison for three years. Ostracized by most of his family, friends, and colleagues, Peter goes through the statutory therapy and rehabilitation program to win parole, all the while struggling to reconcile his illicit passion for a 12-year-old girl with his desire to lead a "normal" life on the outside.
Before he turned to writing plays, Brown was a journalist, serving, among other roles, as the publisher of respected British political journal Prospect. His background makes itself keenly felt in Future Me: Not only does the drama feature a magazine-writer character in the guise of Peter's steady girlfriend Jenny, but also, like a reporter ferreting out different viewpoints for a story, the playwright is determined to examine the issue of pedophilia from every possible angle.
In accordance with contemporary Big Issue trends, Brown avoids treating Peter and his fellow sex-offender inmates as monsters. Brown skillfully captures each character's trajectory and complex relationship with the world, giving us fascinating insights into a wide array of attitudes toward the subject. While Brown doesn't condone Peter's behavior, he attempts to help us understand the character's struggle — and the struggle of people with similar sexual tastes — and is unafraid to cast a critical eye on society's often unsatisfactory methods of handling sex offenders.
Peter (captured with understated warmth by Dana Jepsen) tries his best to be "good" and to cooperate with the authorities. Yet he's driven to help another prisoner, though fully cognizant of the personal risks. When Harry (perkily performed by Dana Kelly), a lifelong sex offender, comes up for parole, Peter dutifully takes custody of his collection of illicit pictures of underage girls (which Harry had secreted in the body of his guitar) at the risk of losing his privileges and even forfeiting his own chances of parole. Meanwhile, Harry's recurring criminal record is offset by his sweet, bumbling nature and a comical habit of playing the guitar badly. Brown even manages to make us see the point of view of the less-likable Tim (embodied with leering forthrightness by Peter Ruocco), an unrepentant proponent of relationships between adults and minors. "The age of consent isn't about protecting children," Tim says at one point. "It's about denying their sexuality." At some level, we can't help but feel that there might be an absurd grain of truth to his obnoxious words.
Yet while Brown achieves the remarkable by making us sympathize to a degree with child molesters, we aren't able to connect sufficiently with the characters and their story to feel truly challenged by Future Me's unorthodox take on the Big Issue in question. Part of the problem has to do with pacing. The relentless structure of the drama, with its endless onslaught of staccato scenes, soon becomes predictable and wearing. With the actors trundling on- and offstage every few minutes, the compact Berkeley City Club auditorium starts to feel cluttered. Set designer Wesley Cabral's busy melée of hanging pictures depicting magazine glamour shots and brightly colored abstract floor painting only serve to estrange us further from the drama.
Another — and perhaps more fundamental — issue is context. The actors successfully mine their characters' complex arcs to the full, but they don't seem altogether comfortable with the British accents and setting. Future Me is packed with ironies and funny lines, but many of the play's wittiest, attention-grabbing moments get lost in translation. Comedy is key to making the Big Issues play of today work. (For instance, much of the power of Nicky Silver's drama Beautiful Child, about a mild-mannered schoolteacher who has an affair with an 8-year-old student, stems from its dangerous sense of humor.) Judging by their failure to respond to Brown's jokes on opening night, Berkeley audiences just aren't hip to quips about the Millennium Dome and the East London neighborhood of Dalston, which further undermines our ability to engage with the play.
Viewers might find themselves wishing Brown had tweaked his script for an American audience. If Future Me shows us anything about Big Issue plays of today, it's the importance of connecting the subject matter with the audience. Merely presenting an unconventional viewpoint isn't enough.