Review by Tulis McCall
(12 Nov 2010)
Amy Herzog is a fortunate person. She is fortunate that she has the skill and the chutzpah to write a play that sticks to your ribs. She is fortunate that Playwrights Horizons and Williamstown Theatre Festival were smart enough to produce it. She is, finally, grandly fortunate that Peter Friedman, David Margulies and Lois Smith are treading the boards in this production.
It is 1999, and Emma Joseph (Katharine Powell) has just graduated from law school. On the day in question she has delivered a graduation speech that has kicked butt. In the speech she told the story of her grandfather Joe, who was blacklisted, and came pretty close to calling her fellow classmates lazy. This is thrilling to her father Ben (Peter Friedman) and her grandmother Vera, (Lois Smith) who are both extreme Leftists (Ben being an admitted Marxist) and proud carriers of the banner that Joe Joseph flew. The only thing better than the speech is the three year old fund that Katharine has established in her grandfather’s name. The Joe Joseph Fund is dedicated to defending the rights of the unjustly accused, just as Mr. Joseph did in the 1950’s.
Slightly less thrilled is her uncle Leo (Mark Blum) who teaches at Tufts and is a moderate. Though his brother Ben teaches in Brookline – a mere 30 miles away – they are not close enough to know the details of each other’s lives.
So when the poop hits the fan in the form of a new book of declassified source material is published with a two page entry on Joe Joseph and his activity as an American spy for the Soviets during WWII – the two brothers have different views on how to a) break it to Emma and b) handle the situation in general. Ben wants to denounce the denouncement, because what his father did was in support of the Allies and the Soviet soldiers who were dying without American support. Leo and Emma see the announcement as the death knell for the Joe Joseph Fund. Joe Joseph’s stand against McCarthyism in the 1950’s and his appearance in front of HUAC are rendered meaningless in their eyes. In particular, the fund’s involvement in the real-life case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black journalist convicted in 1982 of murdering a police officer in Philadelphia (the Third Circuit Court Panel reheard this case on November 9th of this year) is jeopardized.
Lines are drawn and the battle is clear. In the scenes that follow Herzog drills deep into the issues of family, loyalty, morality and circumstance. She does so with a laser precision and takes no prisoners. The dialogue is smart and of substance. There is not the hint of a cliché to be seen. And in the hands of Friedman, Smith and David Margulies (Morty) this play delivers ace after ace after ace. Peter Friedman is extraordinary. He treads the tightrope of emotion vs. logic with a clarity that has the strength of a grappling hook. Margulies is as smooth as a skater on black ice. Smith’s hold on her husband’s history is fierce and mighty. Because of this trio, we are pulled into this debate whether we like it or not. Herzog tosses us back and forth over the line like whiffle balls. We do not get to sit in judgment, because the battle line keeps moving.
Structurally the play is weakest in the scenes between Emma and her boyfriend Miguel (Elliot Villar) because they do little to move the action along in comparison to the rest of the play. And as often happens with tales like this it is the protagonist who is the weakest link in the story. Emma’s paralysis over the revelation of her grandfather’s spying goes on for weeks, and we never quite get why. Far more powerful would have been the choice to activate her into finding out the truth – which she sort of does, but it becomes nearly too little too late. The other scenes, with Emma and her sister Jess (Meredith Holzman) are lovely, particularly because of Ms. Holzman’s excellent work, but they too fall out of the trajectory that Ms. Herzog has created.
This play would make an excellent one act, trimmed and focused. But that is back seat driving with the Wish List Pedal flat on the floor. Herzog understands character and plot. Going forward she can have the fun of learning to trust her voice and eliminate the detritus. As it is, however, After the Revolution is some mighty fine theatre, mighty, mighty fine.