Nearly a decade before his 1993 Broadway explosion with Angels in America, Tony Kushner debuted A Bright Room Called Day and even here his enormous imagination and intellect are apparent. The show’s never been seen in Pittsburgh, a situation rectified by a remarkable Carnegie Mellon University production directed by Jed Allen Harris.
As befits a Kushner script, Bright Room contains two plays; the bulk of the evening is set in the 1932 Berlin apartment of film actress Agnes Eggling. Her group of friends is, like her, liberal and mostly Communist. The Weimar Republic is collapsing and they are forced to confront the rise of Hitler, a man so comically villainous that nobody on the left has taken him seriously. (Hmmm, parallels much?)
The other play features monologues delivered by a woman named Zillah Katz; her intercut scenes are set in the mid-1980s (when the play was first written) and as she experiences the murderous Reagan administration, she outlines for us comparisons between the rise of the Republican right and the Third Reich.
Yes, it’s heavy handed, polemical and unabashedly biased. And Kushner certainly pounds home his point. But here’s the thing — when so much film, television and theater is small stories about small people, the molten lava-shower of ideas and theatrical brilliance Kushner parades before us is mesmerizing. American theater is resolutely non-political so it’s electrifying to grapple with such huge political ideas. I probably need to see the play several more times to understand some of Kushner’s more abstruse dialectics.
But considering how compelling this CMU production is, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Harris, amazingly, manages to both honor the extravagance of Kushner’s imagination while focusing on the essential need for storytelling: I suspect directing this show must have been like bull-riding.
Sarah Pidgeon makes the emotional and intellectual paralysis of Agnes achingly real and Kennedy McMann as an opium addicted fellow film actress is droll, bitchy and desperately sad. Aleyse Shannon brings a great deal of humanity to Zillah’s discourses. And playing two men who are, in different ways, rendered powerless in the face of evil, Will Brosnahan and Timiki Salinas score mightily.
And then there’s Clayton Barry as an ersatz Mephistopheles. Kushner ends the first half of Bright Day with a demon dropping in for a visit (like the Angel does in Angels in America). It’s the most thrilling role in the piece and Barry’s performance is breathtaking.