By Samuel L. Leiter
The riveting East Coast premiere of Eureka Day, Jonathan Spector’s bitingly topical dramedy, at Walkerspace, Soho Rep’s usual haunt, reminds me of the immortal words of Sean O’Casey’s bibulous “paycock,” Captain Jack Boyle: “The world’s in a terrible state of chassis.”
Unless we live in a bubble, it’s a wonder how we navigate the “chassis” of daily life when we’re besieged by more nerve-jangling issues clamoring for our attention than ever before: presidential politics, terrorism, climate change, drug addiction, health care, abortion, white nationalism, gun control, Jeffrey Epstein, the Middle East, the environment, massive hurricanes, a free press, privacy, identity, vaccinations . . .
Each of these (and newsworthy others) could be the spur that drives writers to create topically pertinent dramas, comedies, and musicals. Aside from the endless stream of works dealing with identity issues (ethnic, racial, or sexual), however, those dealing in potent ways with the others come more as single spies than as battalions. Fortunately, one such spy is Eureka Day, set mostly in the child-friendly library—perfectly designed by John McDermott and lit by Grant Yeager—of the eponymous Berkeley private school.
Although I have quibbles about this and that, Eureka Day—originally done by the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley, and soon to get other productions elsewhere—gives the incipient fall season a well-needed shot in the arm with its clever way of exploring the ramifications of compulsory vaccinations. School opens this week, so its timing couldn’t be better.
Spector carefully develops his discussion drama around Eureka Day’s four continuing board members and their “floating” member, whose child is a new enrollee. The continuing ones are Don (Thomas Jay Ryan), the school head, and the parents, Suzanne (Tina Benko), Meiko (K.K. Moggie), and Eli (Brian Wiles). Joining them is Carina (Elizabeth Carter). Lux Haac’s quotidian costumes help make them all seem real.
The board prides itself on the school’s emphasis on social justice and non-confrontational attitudes toward controversial issues. That, however, doesn’t prevent the occasional, unintentional, mildly racist sling sent in the African American Carina’s direction.
Eureka Day, craftily directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, covers a lot of ground (even squeezing in an affair between two parents) in its somewhat overlong, nearly two hours (with one intermission). Its chief mission is to show what happens when the board members are forced to deal with an outbreak of mumps that leads to a health department directive requiring all the non-vaccinated students to get shots. Just because this school is in the liberal enclave of Berkeley is no reason to believe the well-educated parents all accept the scientific support for the importance of vaccines, for mumps and a host of other ailments.
Spector does an exquisite job of satirizing the board’s commitment to accepting everyone’s ideas as equally valid, demonstrating the emotional and psychological tubes through which the board members—overseen by the always placating Don—must squeeze themselves to show how fair and open they are to all opinions. Politesse in the name of political correctness has rarely been so finely shaded, creating a situation where no one can take a position because to do so would be to express advocacy rather than seek consensus. Spector’s demonstration of the conflict between the relative value of individual needs and community ones is one of the play’s strongest features.
Of enormous help is the playwright’s capturing the hesitant rhythms of dialogue in which the otherwise articulate characters struggle to avoid offending anyone by backtracking at any sign of disagreement or by speaking in partial sentences and ellipses. Feelings and opinions are repressed in the interest of “community” values, often creating time-burning digressions when they should be confronting concrete problems. Don, especially, is unable to stand up for his beliefs, claiming he’s just a “facilitator.”
A brilliantly comic scene revealing both the board’s suppression of its own disparate views and the far freer ones of the school’s parents is represented during a live Facebook meeting held between the board and the parents. As Don and the board talk about the issues, a plethora of parental comments, each signaled by a ding, are projected on an upstage screen (thanks to Kate Ducey’s projection design). If you’ve ever engaged in an online political thread, you can imagine the vitriol that pecking at a keyboard can inspire. Mixed with the “likes” that keep popping up are so many hilarious insults and ripostes that it’s difficult to pay equal attention to the live discussion and online comments, which go by very fast and are sometimes hard to read.
Beautifully acted by its ensemble—each actor deserves a shout-out, but I’ll choose Tina Benko as my favorite—Eureka Day deserves a longer life. Playwright Spector manages to avoid injecting the play with overt polemics, allowing contemplation of both sides of the issue (which crosses left-right lines). Much as he likes to cloud the discussion with disclaimers, though, there’s no doubt where he stands.
Hopefully, Eureka Day will prove contagious and be quarantined somewhere for a longer run.
Photos: Robert Altman
64 Walker St., NY
Through September 21