By Will Arbery; Directed by Danya Taymor
Off Broadway, Play
Extended through 11.17.19
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street
by Keith Paul Medelis on 10.7.19
John Zdrojeski, Zoë Winters, Jeb Kreager, and Julia McDermott in Heroes of the Fourth Turning. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: Will Arbery searches for “something true” in conservative rhetoric.
Will Arbery's epically named new play Heroes of the Fourth Turning takes its title from the controversial Strauss-Howe generational theory, which is excitedly voiced by own of his characters. According to authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, history occurs in a series of four recurring generations, or turnings—High, Awakening, Unraveling, Crisis.
We are now in Crisis.
In Arbery's play, this is the “national identity crisis” that our characters say has been “caused by Obama. Liberals think it’s Trump.” The fighters during the time of Crisis are the archetype of the hero, born during the Unraveling period; heroes are intelligent, well-meaning, with critically engaged minds. You, liberal reader, might think that’s you. But Arbery's titular heros are a group of conservatives in a backyard of an unnamed small town in Wyoming, all of whom have a close relationship to a nearby Catholic college.
Arbery’s thesis: not all conservatives are stupid. And that’s what makes this group so viciously dangerous. That is also what makes this New York audience squirm, but more on that later.
Former students of Dr. Gina Presson (a fierce Michele Pawk), a beloved professor who has recently been named the new college president, gather in the backyard of Justin (played with catatonic quiet by Jeb Kreager). There’s a searching Kevin (John Zdrojeski), who is at first just looking forward to the coming lunar eclipse but later is tormented by why “Catholicism necessitates conservatism.” Dr. Presson’s ill daughter Emily (Julia McDermott) is unassuming and near bed-ridden, but later explodes with pent-up rage as a pro-life activist who can’t come to terms with equating abortion to the Holocaust. She is confronted by the far more militant Teresa (Zoë Winters), a Steve Bannon-ite who has moved to Brooklyn's South Slope “where the Battle of Brooklyn was fought in the Revolutionary War,” and isn’t afraid to pull out the Nazi-comparison-bomb to reference the work of Planned Parenthood. Teresa runs an epic marathon of monologues in Heroes, but only manages second place when pitted against the monstrously astute Dr. Presson, a life-long "classic" Republican who is just holding out for a Pence presidency after the current administration passes over. Justin, meanwhile, warns that a war is coming.
If you’ve guessed from the massive trigger warnings I’ve just packed into one paragraph, Heroes of the Fourth Turning does not play it safe. A play that starts with a gunshot and is punctuated throughout by an assaulting screeching noise wounds its audience, leaving us stunned into submission by play’s end. Do we want to root for these people? Well, sometimes. And that’s the crazy part.
After one particular political diatribe, one might easily attempt the type of enthusiastic applause that often accompanies the full-throated, thoughtful rhetoric we hear from the Elizabeth Warrens of the world. But then, we pull back quickly. While this argument was said with the same intelligent tenor we are used to hearing from "our" politicians, when we actually listen to the words, they are not our own. These are the words of the enemies. Are we the heroes of the fourth turning, or are they?
Danya Taymor directs Heroes with surgical precision. We spend two hours of real time in one backyard that is almost completely in the dark, illuminated simply by a motion sensor porch light on one side, and the moon the other. Taymor knows that Arbery’s packed text is not to be overwhelmed with extraneous staging and barely moves her actors for the entire time. We stay hooked.
Laura Jellinek’s set provides an emptiness that could be boring but is instead full of mystery. Jellinek has mastered the art of the simple in her recent Tony-nominated design for Oklahoma! and the evocative design for Sea Wall/A Life. A single diagonal line traces the upstage wall, delicately carved out with Isabella Byrd’s impeccably subtle lighting design. This could be just the horizon or a mountain or even an eclipse, but it could also be the sign of an impending apocalyptic civil war.
Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning may well be hard to watch for most New York theater-goers, which is precisely why you should see it. Under Taymor’s direction we wait for another gun to go off as Arbery turns up the heat. During one moment of focus provided by Byrd’s lights, I even went to plug my ears. But Arbery doesn’t let the gun go off, making it all the more upsetting. Instead, we hear gun shots in the distance, just over the mountain and somewhere out in the darkness. They’re so quiet you may even miss them. Listen. Who will win the war?
(Heroes of the Fourth Turning plays at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, through November 17, 2019. The running time is 2 hours with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7, Thursdays and Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8, and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30. Tickets are $49, $69, and $89. For tickets and more information call 212-279-4200 or visit playwrightshorizons.org.)
Heroes of the Fourth Turning is by Will Arbery. Directed by Danya Taymor. Scenic Design by Laura Jellinek. Costume Design by Sarafina Bush. Lighting Design by Isabella Byrd. Sound Design by Justin Ellington. Fight Direction by J. David Brimmer. Production Stage Manager is Jenny Kennedy.
The cast is Jeb Kreager, Julia McDermott, Michele Pawk, Zoë Winters, and John Zdrojeski.