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Angels in Berlin 

Why Tony Kushner is no George Bernard Shaw

Wednesday, Oct 22 2003
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The going line on Tony Kushner is that he's our generation's George Bernard Shaw -- "a gracious, slightly capricious, yet perennially outraged commentator with one foot in politics and the other in the arts," is how a writer for LA Weekly put it last month, when Kushner's Homebody/Kabul premiered in Southern California. The trouble with this comparison is that Kushner isn't very funny. He's a Marxist controversialist, like Shaw, and he gets off a good zinger now and then, but he lacks the deep, trenchant worldview that allowed Shaw to pick apart any situation -- moral, social, political -- and reduce an audience to helpless laughter.

A Bright Room Called Day is Kushner's mid-'80s lament about Ronald Reagan in the form of a sad, slow story of actors and other liberal subversives in Germany during Hitler's rise to power. Sharply imagined scenes in Berlin during 1932 and '33 interlace with brief, graceless bits involving a history student named Zillah who visits Berlin in 1990. Zillah is a self-conscious liberal from Brooklyn, in ripped jeans and combat boots, trying to learn more about a certain Jewish relative and her life during the Nazi period.

Zillah represents everything people hate about Kushner, rolled into a neat package. She says, for example, "Sleep is essentially a bourgeois convention." Later she complains that the Reagan '80s were hard on a "history junkie" like her. She's smart, in other words -- she understands history, and people who disagree with her are dumb. And yet she utters some of the dumbest lines in the play. Hitler presided over the active murder of 6 million, but her archdevil Reagan stood "idly by" in the 1980s while millions died of AIDS. (The moral stupidity of that comparison is profound.) Then she complains that no one in her generation can recognize evil when he sees it: "Why is it that the only people who say 'evil' anymore are Southern cracker televangelists with blue eye shadow?"

People defend Kushner by arguing that Zillah is not a stand-in for the playwright's opinions. She's meant to be callow and naive. Maybe so. But her Hitler-Reagan comparison is the overall point of A Bright Room Called Day. The Berlin artists and intellectuals are a genial, disorganized bunch who hold all sorts of opinions, from apolitical Freudianism to fading Trotskyism to faithful Stalinism. Kushner wants to show that disorganization on the left allowed Hitler to rise. That much is true, and as long as Bright Room sticks to the 1930s it's a compelling drama. The intelligentsia chatter so wittily about '30s-era politics that the play begins to feel like a stroll through the graveyard of 20th-century ideologies. "Psychoanalysis makes more sense than communism," one of them declares. "Germany is where capitalism will make its final stand," says another. Someone else observes, with a sad, stinging discernment that would prove to be 50 percent correct, "Oh, half of the Nazis are socialists. ... And when Hitler exposes himself as just another flunky for German capital, the working classes will abandon him."

This La Luna production has the benefit of powerful actors like Kevin Karrick, as the disillusioned Hungarian director Husz (who wears an eye patch, having lost one eye in the Hungarian uprising of 1919), and Libby O'Connell, as the reluctantly politicized actress Agnes Eggling. Agnes is the moral focus of the play -- she sees the Nazi flood rising but lacks the passion to act -- and O'Connell invests her with a disarming nervous humanity. Matt Weimer also does well as Baz, a gay Freudian who finds himself within spitting distance of Hitler, packing a gun; and John Craven gives a tour-de-force monologue as Gottfried Swetts, a Mephistophelean antiques trader raving about the diabolical possibilities of the modern age. Swetts exerts himself like a man possessed, so the monologue is fun to watch, but the writing, I'm afraid, is pompous.

Bright Room tells an engaging story, and it would be nice if Kushner knew when to back off and let his point settle in under its own merits. By pushing the Reagan-Hitler comparison he makes an ass of himself and a cliché of his fascinating script. Shaw had a deeper, truer instinct. His Marxism has gone down the toilet, but his plays remain hilarious and bright, while Kushner is in danger -- even in these dark times -- of sounding dated.

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