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After the Revolution

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lois Smith and Katharine Powell.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If After the Revolution, Amy Herzog's new play at the Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, were merely about ideals under attack, it would be unbearable. Concerning a family of devoted Marxists, most of whom have spent all their lives hiding the facts about the clan's patriarch from the granddaughter who's become his spiritual successor, it could all too easily devolve into a nonstop barrage of one-dimensional recriminations against everything even vaguely capitalist. After all, these are people for whom the Mumia Abu-Jamal case represents everything despicable about the United States, so it's hard to imagine them stopping their onslaught of discontent under any reasonable circumstances. But with a dose of solid theatrical thinking, Herzog avoids that—a little.

Though much of her play feels like a feature-length infomercial for Communism, especially as flatly directed here by Carolyn Cantor, the young woman at its heart, Emma Joseph, is eventually willing to consider introspection its own reward. When she does, forcing her way through her unquestioned beliefs to a position closer to raw objectivity despite the walls of comfort she's constructed around herself, the story becomes about something more substantial than merely one brood's inherited political mania.

Still, the underlying premise does strain credibility. Emma (Katharine Powell) has just graduated from law school, and is supposedly on the fast track to a glorious career of activism. But the Joe Joseph Foundation, which she's started to honor her grandfather and bring justice to the disenfranchised (most notably Abu-Jamal), could be threatened because of an upcoming book that accuses Grandpa Joe of passing state secrets to the Soviets during World War II. That's something, by the way, that Emma's father (Peter Friedman), stepmother (Mare Winningham), uncle (Mark Blum), sister (Meredith Holzman), and of course grandmother (Lois Smith) have all known for years did actually happen.

Emma just missed this salient point about the man who so inspired her? Herzog tries to suggest that Emma was so blinded by her own ideology that she couldn't squint her way through to recognize this, but that's not exactly believable given that it's essentially common knowledge within every nook and cranny of the Joseph brood. (Jules Feiffer's 2003 play A Bad Friend similarly dealt with American Communists coming to grips with reality, in that case about Stalin. But its setting in the early 1950s, when the slow-to-nonexistent trickle of information was more credible, made it more intense an investigation.)

Regardless, once Emma discovers her grandfather's secret, and sets out to make this right on familial, financial, and psychological terms, After the Revolution becomes somewhat more interesting. Emma all but crumbles under the weight of both history and the realization that her father has lied to her for years, even after she began the Foundation, and Powell smartly traverses her state of mind. One moment antic, the next resigned, the next floored by some additional worldview-shattering extrapolation (could it be possible that Abu-Jamal was—gasp!—guilty of the brutal crime for which he was sentenced to death?), Emma appears in Powell's performance as a young woman who's being forced to grow up all over again, and that lends real emotional credence to the play's underlying arguments about the facts and fictions we let fuel our lives.

Unfortunately, most of the other performances are of one sustained note, mostly because the writing offers fewer opportunities for variation. The closest thing to an exception is the ever-winning Winningham, who brings an understanding maternal grace to her role. But her character, like all the others—including Emma's boyfriend (Elliot Villar) and a powerful Foundation benefactor (David Margulies)—are much more unrepentant, as if they've already accepted truth as a casualty of war. They see their cause as far more important than its vehicle, and if propelling it forward means violating the country's laws and national security, so be it—as always, the working class is the only real victim here.

As a result, the petty inter-Joseph squabblings don't carry much weight—and, as intriguing as Emma's story is, Herzog doesn't pierce very deep in examining what the girl may be giving up by rebelling this way. The longest-lasting side-effect of her rethinking her life is refusing to answer her dad's phone calls for a couple of weeks, and no amount of his standing and screaming into an emotionless answering machine (which, to his credit, Friedman does with rock-solid determination) can make any of this seem like a big deal. Herzog never convinces you of the depth of Emma's sacrifice, and what of it you do see plays as not much more than a pat on the back, a homey exhortation that all temper tantrums do eventually pass.

The closest Herzog comes to innovation is Grandma herself. Her running joke is that she always needs people to speak up because she can no longer hear—and when confronted with Emma's own evolving viewpoints, which are realigning themselves at right angles to her own, she's just as a deaf. The pair's last scene together, in which the older woman schools the younger on the importance of political myopia when there's wealth to redistribute, is an unsettling reminder that no good deed—or truly challenging conviction—ever really does go unpunished. Such moments prevent After the Revolution from itself being punishing, but its reluctance to have more of them ensures its own good intents remain heavily muted.

After the Revolution
Through November 28
Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, 416 West 42nd Street, 4th floor
Tickets online and current performance schedule at

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