The premise of A.R Gurney’s new play is that things are going to get a lot worse if we don’t do something. It’s a timely theme as we approach the presidential election, and Heresy‘s entertaining discussion of the value of taking action feels like it should be relevant. Gurney is famous for his portrayals of the vanishing world of the WASPs, and this vision of the future is strangely retro.
Kate Foster’s set prepares the audience to expect a Kafka-esque world where officialdom takes people away with little likelihood of their return. The stage is transformed into a wood-paneled inner sanctum complete with a secret door to a cocktail cabinet and a TV screen that shows propaganda as the audience takes its seats. The screen is later hidden behind sliding doors and, surprisingly, not brought back into use for the rest of the show.
The action takes place in the office of The Prefect, a high official in the new America with the power to pull strings for some old friends: the desperate parents of a son who has just been thrown in jail, apparently for no reason.
The parents are Mary (Annette O’Toole) and Joseph (Steve Mellor) and the allegorical pennies start to drop fast when we learn that The Prefect is Pontius Pilate, his secretary (who takes notes on events as if they were gospel) is Mark, the imprisoned son is Chris and his girlfriend is Lena – short for Magdalena.
Kathy Najimy steals the show as Pontius’ wife, Phyllis, a ditzy socialite who leads the drinking that ensues as the assembled company discuss the wisdom of letting someone with outspoken views on the country out of jail. Phyllis, the ultimate philistine, gets sloshed as the rest assert that Chris will be in mortal danger in an America where students are allowed to carry concealed weapons.
But this threat and the mention of a series of crackdowns that have recently taken place feel like artificial dangers in what is a political discussion posing as a drawing-room comedy. There are some zinging contemporary references, with Mary saying of her son: “He likes to speak off the cuff, like Socrates or Clint Eastwood.”
Boiled down to their essence, the ills that afflict this not-so-fictional America consist of three things: a word, a phrase and a condition. The word is ‘consumers’, the phrase is ‘The American Dream’ and the condition is ‘frustration’. These ills are expounded by Ariel Woodiwiss’s Lena, a former prostitute with a Southern drawl and a silver mini-dress, and Pedro (Danny Rivera), Chris’s college roommate. It’s a devastating critique but, delivered as reported speech, it loses some impact.
Pontius, suavely played by Reg E. Cathey, directs the conversation in his outrageously camp military uniform. As his wife constantly reminds us, he is known as “The Decider’, so we expect a big decision at any moment. Without giving too much away, you may be disappointed.
Pontius eventually puts the assembled company on the spot, asking them to explain what future they would plan for Chris should he be released from jail. You’ll be the judge as to whether their answers represent a good cross-section of the hopes and fears of present day Americans. And that’s what this odd but entertaining look at the crassness of America seems bent on doing – raising questions to get the audience thinking about the answers.