More than 50 years after his death, Joseph McCarthy, the late and little-lamented “junior Senator from Wisconsin,” has taken to haunting the New York theater scene.
The malignant spirit of the one-time powerful Senator, who ruined lives and careers by leveling charges of espionage and subversive activities during a reign of anti-Communist fervor in the 1950s, is evoked in no fewer than four current productions: Zero Hour, the one-man show about actor Zero Mostel; the revival of Tony Kushner’s masterwork, Angels in America; a production of Personal Enemy, an early play by John Osborne and Anthony Creighton, and the New York premiere of a play by Amy Herzog, called After the Revolution.
Herzog is one of the young playwrights I have written about, like Annie Baker, Ellen Fairey, and Kristoffer Diaz, who are bringing original voices and ideas to the theater scene and whose work speaks to a broad audience beyond their own same-age peers. After the Revolution, a play about three generations of American leftists, is being given a stellar production at the Playwrights Horizons, thanks in large part to a strong ensemble of actors, including the always-marvelous Lois Smith, who celebrated her “big eight-o” earlier this month, as the matriarch of the clan, and the always-marvelous David Margulies as an old family friend. It is worth the price of admission just to be able to watch these two veterans remind us what stage acting is all about.
In After the Revolution, the central character is Emma (Katharine Powell), who, in her mid-twenties, represents the third generation in her family of proud Marxist-inspired Americans. As “keeper of the flame” and head of a foundation named for her much-revered grandfather—iconicized as one of McCarthy’s targets—Emma is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about the past and come to terms with her loving but manipulative father (Peter Friedman).
Emma is dedicated, like the rest of her family (save for some for some sneered-upon cousins), to supporting leftist causes. Indeed, the foundation she helms is engaged in a campaign on behalf of a very real death-row inmate, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who remains at the center of an ongoing debate over the fairness of his trial and of the death penalty itself.
Unfortunately, Emma’s personal angst as she strives to find her own place in the grand scheme of things tends to overwhelm what could be a very interesting debate on politics and social justice—something that would surely resonate in today’s political climate. It’s not that the family drama isn’t interesting; it is. I just longed for more of that good old radical, progressive, leftist talk, most of which is left up to Ms. Smith’s character to espouse; for instance, I found her unchallenged take on Stalin to be one of the most telling moments in the play.
Still there is much to commend. Director Carolyn Cantor has shaped the company into a cohesive and believable family unit. In addition to the fine performances by the actors identified above, Mare Winningham, as Emma’s stepmother, does an excellent job treading the line as mediator between the stubborn father-daughter pair.
Seeing After the Revolution, which Herzog has said was inspired by events in her own family, makes me hope that she will come back to this story one day and examine more deeply the complexities of the era that allowed for Joseph McCarthy to shake up so many lives, so that we are still feeling the impact today.
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