A more pointed — and catchier — title for Jules Feiffer’s new play might be “Mother Loved Stalin.” Set during the infamous McCarthy era, “A Bad Friend” examines the generation gap in a “progressive” Brooklyn family in the red glare of the anxiety engendered by the witch hunts on Capitol Hill.
It’s an ambitious attempt to illuminate the major absurdities and minor tragedies of the era by exploring the pressures that the country’s climate of fear put on a pair of Communism-besotted parents and their troubled teenage daughter. But it’s also seriously muddled. Despite some sharply written scenes, the play gets low marks on most standard dramatic criteria, including narrative cohesion, character depth and entertainment value. In the end there’s not much the first-rate cast assembled by director Jerry Zaks can do to paper over its fundamental awkwardness.
The central character is put-upon young Rose (Kala Savage), a high school senior who gets precious little attention from parents too busy arguing over the latest setbacks to the cause or the headlines in the Daily Worker. Naomi, played with a pronounced sense of eternal grievance by the dependable Jan Maxwell, is a true believer in the movement. When she hears that nine Jewish doctors in the Soviet Union have been arrested and accused of treason, her usual anxiety over anti-Semitism goes up in smoke. She rails bitterly against the doctors as traitors who “mock and shame us.”
Rose’s father, Shelly (an earnest Jonathan Hadary), is scarcely a more comforting figure. When Rose sheepishly suggests, “Maybe I’m only a liberal,” Shelly responds with a stern lecture on Marxist thought. “It breaks my heart that you are at a stage where you are too individualistic to acknowledge what I know is the truth,” he says pityingly. Shelly and Naomi’s devotion to their beliefs, and their none-too-subtle disappointment in a daughter who refuses to toe the party line, is both comic and chilling. But these bluntly drawn characters, who address both Rose and each other in long-winded, lecturely tones, are neither funny enough nor scary enough to compel much interest. And aside from their commitment to the Socialist movement, they seem to have few dimensions.
For emotional succor, Rose turns to a stranger she meets on the Brooklyn Heights esplanade. Emil (Larry Bryggman) is a painter and photographer who draws Rose out of herself by introducing her to the beauties of Courbet and Theodore Dreiser. He also allows Rose to vent her frustration with her parents, which she does to an ultimately tedious degree. (Savage is unfortunately unable to modulate her character’s endless expressions of dissatisfaction; the role becomes one long, shrill whine.)
But the character of Emil, and his relationship with Rose, strain credulity from the start. Despite Bryggman’s tender performance, Emil seems little more than a dramatic device, a passive audience for Rose’s angst who later evolves, suddenly and implausibly, into a far more sensational figure than anyone suspected. And yet Rose’s friendship with Emil is hardly more unlikely than her recurring encounters with FBI agent Fallon (David Harbour), who tries to seduce Rose into revealing compromising information about her Uncle Morty (Mark Feuerstein), a Hollywood screenwriter who also pops in on Rose for frequent tete-a-tetes.
In addition to these central contrivances, the play is hampered by its disjointed structure. It unfolds in brief scenes played on a gray carpeted platform surrounded by a few pieces of worn furniture. (The gray-toned backdrop depicting a view of Manhattan from the esplanade is the most appealing aspect of Douglas Stein’s set.) The ungainly format inhibits our engagement with both characters and narrative, and quickly becomes a drain on dramatic momentum. Feiffer seems to be writing his play in his better-known guise as a cartoonist, in discrete segments with just a few bubbles of dialogue at a time.
The play’s underrealized status is lamentable in the light of its intriguing subject matter. Feiffer’s central notion, sketched in at the edges of the play, is poignant. Sifting out the extraneous elements, we come to see how her parents’ stark worldview, dividing humanity into good guys and bad guys much the way the Westerns Uncle Morty pens do, has shaped Rose’s nature almost against her will. The irony is she comes to see her parents themselves as the bad guys. “We have different enemies,” Rose recalls saying to herself. “My enemies are you.”
And the disquieting idea that a teenager’s instinctive desire to rebel against her parents, in this strangely fraught period of American history, could have drastic consequences is a compelling one, too. But these themes never come very strongly into focus — in fact, the play ultimately cops out on the latter suggestion, as Rose’s interaction with the FBI turns out to have significant but entirely unexpected (and, to reiterate, scarcely credible) consequences. Instead, the play concludes with a convoluted series of scenes that are as unconvincing in their essence as they are sometimes inaccurate in their details. Answering machines in 1978? I don’t think so.