There are plays more gainly and less sprawling, but few more provocative and more entertaining.
In her epigraph for “The Wake,” now at the Kirk Douglas Theater, Lisa Kron quotes James Baldwin’s injunction: “Any honest examination of the national life…demands of everyone who loves this country a hard look at himself.” Kron fearlessly puts her protagonist Ellen (Heidi Schreck) through just such a self-analysis, taking stock of the chaos caused by Bush-Cheney only to discover the damage floating in her own wake. There are plays more gainly and less sprawling, but few more provocative and, pound for pound, more entertaining. Center Theater Group has commissioned a major American work for our time.
Ellen, presumably like her author, possesses impeccable progressive credentials. An academic studying the national infrastructure (what a perfect detail), Ellen is also a motormouth ever ranting about right-wing perfidy, not unlike the feverish Louis in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”
Kushner’s fanatic has Belize and Prior Walter to check his excesses, but Ellen’s homey East Village enclave – designed with witty photorealism by David Korins – is tailor-made for tolerance. Patient boyfriend Danny (Carson Elrod) plays along graciously, good-natured grit provided by his sister Kayla (Andrea Frankle) and Laurie (Danielle Skraastad), lesbian marrieds whose frame of reference is more Norman Rockwell than Norman Thomas.
Thus Ellen has only her conscience to keep her honest, and does it ever. The play becomes a series of opportunities to identify and question her assumptions: Danny will always be there; her entire circle shares her politics; people just need a good shaking up to do the right thing; most of all, the world works as she has always conceived it, and for her benefit.
Each invalidated presupposition upends a little corner of Ellen’s universe, placing physical and vocal demands on Schreck akin to Hickey’s in “The Iceman Cometh.” She prevails in an astonishing display of thespian concentration, determined (as Ellen puts it) to “try to figure out what was really happening when you were looking forward, trying so hard, thinking you were paying such close, careful attention.”
She and audience alike pay extremely close attention to Deirdre O’Connell as Judy, a middle-aged Kentucky hillbilly taking a break from African aid work. Staggering in from her return flight like Marie Dressler in “Anna Christie,” O’Connell’s droll delivery sparks act one, her discomfort with Ellen’s sophisticated set garnering laughs throughout.
Yet Judy’s status, as a member of a class underrepresented in the American dialogue, isn’t just food for jokes.
She climaxes act two with a searing indictment, close to a monologue, of the American system and the limousine liberals who unconsciously fuel it. The relief worker has put her hands and strength where Ellen’s mouth is, thus earning the steady rage that would bring a smile to Gore Vidal’s face even as it will discomfit the left, and self-styled activists across the political spectrum.
Kron is no mere polemicist. An intricate romantic triangle involves Ellen, Danny and a passionate young filmmaker (Emily Donahoe) who has chosen Ellen as her soulmate.
The women’s scenes crackle with sensual fire, and the conundrum created – in which Ellen tries to protect her own stability while hurting neither lover – isn’t just an intensely modern take on relationship building. It’s also damn good playwrighting.
Having assembled a superb ensemble with nary a weak link, helmer Leigh Silverman expertly manages a wealth of detail to persuade us these folks have known each other forever. The work is long but pacing within individual scenes is exquisite, and they’re masterfully lit by Alexander Nichols, whose full-stage video projections (sound artfully staged by Cricket S. Myers) keep us oriented to the outside.
After some likely pruning but with doubtlessly undiminished ferocity, “The Wake” rolls into co-producer Berkeley Rep in May, with a Gotham preem at the Public Theater to follow.