By Brian Scott Lipton
If your TV dial is stuck on MSNBC and you’ve never switched (even once) to Fox News; if you are a Jew who has never looked at the New Testament; if you’re a member of the ACLU who has never talked with someone protesting outside Planned Parenthood, Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, now at Playwrights Horizons under Danya Taymor’s skilled direction, will likely be among the most challenging and provocative plays you’re likely to see this season. In fact, I suspect that many theatergoers (especially those who fit the above criteria) may feel this thought-provoking piece should come with a glossary or, more to the point, a required reading list before attending.
Set in August 2017—less than a year after Donald Trump took the White House, and a week after the Charlottesville riots—the play brings together five interconnected characters in a Wyoming backyard (sparsely but realistically designed by Laura Jellinek and dimly lit by Isabella Byrd). On hand are the older, often silent Justin (a strong Jeb Kreager); his former Catholic college classmates, the clearly troubled, somewhat immature Kevin (a histrionic John Zdrojeski) and the too-cocksure yet obviously unhappy Teresa (a blazingly fiery Zoe Winters, looking stunning in Sarafina Bush’s sleek white pantsuit); their one-time professor Gina (a stunning Michele Pawk), a who has just been named president of their former college; and Gina’s severely ill daughter Emily (a magnificent Julia McDermott, who is guaranteed to break your heart), who clearly has a special bond with Justin.
Arbery, who was raised in a profoundly Catholic and conservative household (but who voted for Obama in 2008), clearly knows whereof he writes, which lends the play its much-needed authenticity. Indeed, one wonders if an “outsider” would feel as comfortable posing so many divisive questions as Arbery does: Does being Catholic naturally mean being politically conservative? Does being Catholic really mean that being pro-life is the issue that decides who you support for president? Does being “conservative” mean you actually/actively support Trump? Does being both “conservative” and Catholic mean not only that you are without compassion for those who don’t share your views? And above all, does being deeply “conservative” require you to become what the left now freely call a “white supremacist”? You may leave the two-hour, intermissionless show with the answers (or thinking you know them), or you may exit with more questions.
While Heroes of the Fourth Turning is essentially an “issues” play, there’s enough of the personal to offset the political. As Arbery reveals, sometimes too obviously for the play’s own good, each one of these people is struggling, internally and/or externally in some way—with addiction, with loneliness, with illness, with doubt—and it’s a testament to his sharp writing and the uniformly fine cast that we do feel empathy (a word Teresa outrightly despises) for their plights, even if we don’t particularly like them as people.
In fact, Arbery really throws down the gauntlet with Teresa, and not just because she believes in the gospel according to Steve Bannon (an idea that even Gina, whom she worships, considers dangerous and idiotic)! The bigger issue is that Teresa is thoroughly convinced that a “war” is imminent, that she and her friends are destined to be its heroes as our current “turning” cycle comes to an end, and in order to be a hero, she is determined to paint almost everyone else in her orbits—and that includes Justin, Kevin, Emily and perhaps even Gina, not to mention the liberals in her Brooklyn neighborhood—as villains. It’s that ideology, Arbery suggests, which is still our clearest and most present danger.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning. Through October 27 at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). Two hours, no intermission. www.playwrightshorizons.org
Photos: Joan Marcus