How many American Marxists can dance on the head of the pin?
After the Revolution, the Aurora’s Theatre’s cerebral immersion in the ethical struggles of three generations of a left-leaning family, doesn’t answer my cheeky question.
But it does deal with other Big Issues.
Such as whether the Machiavellian aphorism that the end justifies the means has validity, if right and wrong are written in concrete, and how yesterday’s actions impact today’s decisions.
Along the way, the dramedy makes sure to swipe at the Red-baiting, witch-hunting tactics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Watching the show is like gazing into a retroscope — and then deconstructing what you think you’ve seen. Not that far removed from a multi-pronged Talmudic discussion about the essence of truth.
In effect, it’s a history lesson wrapped in secrets and lies.
It helps if you’re familiar with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, with the Verona Project (that led to decryptions that in turn revealed data about U.S. spies), and with initial Jewish hopes and subsequent disenchantment with Josef Stalin.
But if you’re not, the program guide will give you an abridged crash course.
Playwright Amy Herzog and director Joy Carlin, an actor and theatrical teacher who has an unforgettable scene opposite Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, do their utmost to sketch a living portrait of a family ruptured by an old secret.
It’s a serious look in the rearview mirror.
But they also extract the max from two roles that lend themselves to laugh-lines.
That of Vera, the rickety but still feisty widow of Joe, the Joseph family’s blacklisted hero, and Jess, the drugged-out sister of Emma, an overachiever who just graduated from law school and is determined to spread the clan’s social-justice messages.
Vera becomes a carry-over character in Herzog’s subsequent play, 4000 Miles, a comic drama that shows the playwright’s evolution as an artist and that has infinitely more charm and tenderness than Revolution.
When I reviewed the American Conservatory Theatre’s Miles production in January, I wrote that Herzog leaned on the six months she’d lived in Manhattan with her 96-year-old grandmother, the natural resource for the Vera persona.
Here she’s immensely likable.
But Em, the focus of the play portrayed by Jessica Bates, is not. She’s robotic, humorless and abrasive.
An intellectual, cold fish.
The story takes place in 1999, when Em wants to use the foundation that bears the name of her grandfather to free accused Black Panther cop-slayer Mumia Abu-Jamal.
We learn early on, however, that Joe wasn’t quite so innocent: He’d given the Russians classified material. We also discover that Emma’s dad withheld that information from her. So Emma suddenly must deal with both father and grandfather having clay feet.
After the Revolution has numerous positive attributes.
Ellen Ratner is the top one. She steals the show many-faceted Vera, the cranky die-hard lefty with a big heart.
Rolf Saxon is also outstanding, as Ben, a history instructor who gets off on rubbing people the wrong way (even at parent–teacher confabs).
And Sarah Mitchell depicts Jess, the sister who’s repeatedly been confined to rehab but ultimately snaps her twin bonds of agony and isolation, as concurrently weak and strong.
The dual-level set by J.B. Wilson, compact and simple (with plain wooden tables and chairs, a distinctly indistinct couch and a backdrop telephone poles and wires), allows quick scene changes.
The cast, not incidentally, frequently and artfully accomplishes those changes in the dark.
Costuming by Callie Floor, with robes and pajamas establishing a contrasting tone to commonplace daily apparel, also is highly effective.
As are the frequent upswept hairstyles adopted by the protagonist, each a hint of where Emma’s head is at any given point — hopeful, depressed, angry, elated.
Herzog occasionally tries to sum up her thinking.
Notes Emma, for instance, “‘Good politics’ in my generation is different from ‘good politics’ in your generation.” And Peter Kybart, playing Morty, an elder who wants to leave his estate to the foundation, refers nostalgically to a past in which, in the East Village, you could throw a stone anywhere and hit a spy.
Ben sets the mood: “Clinton is a big-business president, the poor are getting poorer, racial divides are deepening…and it’s hard to image things getting much worse.”
Because McCarthyism targeted a member of my own family, I went to “After the Revolution” with high hopes of being able to relate. I left disappointed — because I’d wanted to be touched.
And my brain was but my heart wasn’t.
After the Revolution runs at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, through Oct. 6. Night performances, Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Tuesdays and Sundays, 7 p.m.; matinees, Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $16-$50. Information: (510) 843-4822 or www.auroratheatre.org.