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A CurtainUp Review
Heroes of the Fourth Turning
Set on August 19, 2017, a week after the Charlottesville riot and two days before the solar eclipse, four young conservatives — Justin, Emily, Kevin, and Teresa — -reunite in a backyard after-party in western Wyoming to rue the current liberal leanings in the country. Gina, their mentor, has just been inaugurated as the first female president of Transfiguration College of Wyoming. But what starts as a celebration devolves into chaos as member of the group divulge their self doubts and spiritual struggles in the millennium.
This is a daring and ambitious work. No other play this season can match it for its sheer boldness in presenting characters who march to a conservative drum and live and breathe its ideology.
According to my press materials, the playwright is uniquely equipped to pen this theatrical piece, having grown up in a family of conservative Catholic professors. And even though Arbery says that he's now removed from that world, he still views it as something that was "supposed to be his inheritance."
While I would like to say that Heroes. . . succeeds on all fronts, it unfortunately gets weighed down by being overstuffed with this and that conservative philosophy. Though Arbery's characters spew out all the essential arguments of the far right and grapple with each, they seem to illustrate conceits rather than being people examined from within. In short, the play becomes too talky and static.
But why belabor the downside? The playwright has found a fertile subject to bring to the stage. After all, when was the last time you actually could eavesdrop on a group of highly-educated mid-westerners and get an undiluted piece of their conservative minds? What's more, this play casts a penetrating light on how higher learning institutions meticulously develop right-leaning curriculums, inculcating their creeds on their students and then encouraging them to use the power of education to shape social meaning.
Be prepared to be inundated by a Who's Who of the 20th and 21st century 's world. There is a nod to Barry Goldwater (the play's Gina was a Goldwater Girl). . .Pat Buchanan (go-getter Gina held a rally for him in her home). . .Steve Bannon (the former Trump aide who endorsed the theory of a four-fold 20-year long enerational cycle of the rise and fall in American culture from which the play takes its title) — and, of course, the sitting president himself.
While the aforementioned names lend political heft, we also have the likes of William Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Flannery O'Connor peppered in to add literary spice to the piece. Add to all this the Benedict Option (its model is the sixth-century St. Benedict and offers a way to preserve Christian values in our new "dark ages),and a rigorous exploration of the Blessed Mother — and you have more than enough to chew during this 2-hour production sans intermission.
The actors assembled by Taymor are top-notch and carry the play, blemishes and all. Jeb Kreager as Justin exudes religious zeal. Julia McDermot inhabits Emily with the angst of a young woman stricken with Lyme disease. Zõe Winters as the ambitious Teresa could pass as the "poster girl" for conservatism. Michele Pawk as the newly-inducted college president is the personification of Christian righteousness. And John Zdrojesk conveys Kevin as a seriously confused Catholic who has a drinking problem and sadly lacks a real human connection.
Laura Jellinek's rural set and Isabella Byrd's shadowy lighting are just right for the Wyoming backdrop. Justin's backyard is skeletally evoked by a concrete patio, lawn chairs, faintly visible foliage and a large tree stump.
Even though Arbery doesn't altogether succeed in painting a convincing portrait of neo-conservatives in the Midwest, he does conjure up a work that presents them in conversations with themselves'; WITHOUT liberals there to inhibit their perspectives or make snap moral judgments.
Heroes is an anomaly on the New York stage this season. It pointedly reverses the trend of having smart liberal-minded characters articulate their views on society. Instead you're immersed into the conservative mindset with comments like Justin's to Kevin's: "I just think proximity to LGBT is a threat to Christian children and families . . . and all this babble about gender being fluid and non-binary. We are living in barbaric times."
Whether Playwright Horizon's audiences will find Heroes. . . the equivalent of listening to fingernails scratched down a chalkboard or a rare opportunity to listen to the unfiltered voices of conservatives is anyone's guess. But though its a long two hours, it's likely to linger your mind long after the characters finally stop talking.
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Heroes of the Fourth Turning by Will Arbery
Directed by Danya Taymor
Cast: Jeb Kreager (Justin), Julia McDermot (Emily), Michele Pawk (Gina), Zõe Winters (Teresa), and John Zdrojesk (Kevin).
Sets: Laura Jellinek
Costumes: Sarafina Bush
Sound: Justin Ellington
Lighting: Isabella Byrd
Fight Director: David Brimmer Stage Manager: Jenny Kennedy
Playwrights Horizons Main Stage at 416 West 42nd Street. Tickets: $49 to $89. Phone 212-279-4200 or www.phnyc.org.
From 9/13/19; opening 10/7/19; closing 10/27/19.
Tuesday and Wednesday @ 7pm; Thursday through Saturday @ 8pm; Saturday and Sunday matinees @ 2:30pm.
Running time: 2 hours with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 10/03/19
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