There’s a lot of interesting things going on theatrically lately, even if it’s mostly coming from middle-aged, white, heterosexual Christian males — a terribly under-represented societal segment, I know, but stick with me.
There are three such men at the center of WaterTower Theatre‘s The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, an unwieldy title for a heady comic discourse about ego and religion. In a strange mirrored room outside the space-time continuum, three historic figures with a penchant for writing — Jefferson (Ian Ferguson), Dickens (John-Michael Marrs) and Tolstoy (Jeremy Schwartz) — are thrown together by an unknown being… but for what purpose? They eventually realize their common bond is that they each have a different concept of Christian scripture, from fundamentalism (Dickens) to humanism (TJ) to some kind of synthesis (Leo). But which is “right”?
Employing historical figures as avatars to stand in for ideas isn’t new, and neither is segregating them in a crucible for conflict (No Exit), but writer Scott Carter doesn’t do so with pomposity, but with great human and insight. He’s a writer for Real Time with Bill Maher, so there’s already a baseline of religious skepticism you can expect, but Carter doesn’t tip his hand too much. Though Dickens (a flamboyantly self-interested caricature, wonderfully captured by Marrs) seems to be the object of most criticism, the point of the play is that, when it comes to spirituality, or even principles, we are all hypocrites. Because we just don’t know.
It may be early to say this, but I sincerely feel that Emily Scott Banks, who directed Discord, may herself be the spiritual successor to Rene Moreno. Like him, she has a fluid yet mysterious grasp both theatrical presentation and humanity. There’s rarely a false note in any of the shows I’ve seen her direct. She and Moreno share an eye for good casting, but are also able to bring out the best in their actors. In addition to Marrs, Ferguson and Schwartz are perfectly suited, and never become rigid archetypes, but remain genuine people. Over 80 fast-paced minutes, we get a lesson not only of giants of the 19th century, but insights into ourselves.
The lessons, and the people involved, are far less upfront in Straight White Men from Second Thought Theatre. It’s Christmastime, and a family of men — a dad (Bradley Campbell) and his three sons (Thomas Ward, Drew Wall, Brandon Potter) — have gathered to celebrate the holidays and needle each other mercilessly. The holidays often bring out negative feelings among family, although this doesn’t come across as one of those turning point melodramatic dramedies. Dad is jovial but tends to keep his head in the sand about his oldest son (Ward), an Ivy Leaguer who has moved back home to a menial job while one brother (Potter) is a successful if cutthroat banker and the other (Wall) a college prof and acclaimed novelist. Why hasn’t the older brother, who had more promise than the other, met with success? Is he not enough of a shark? Or is he not drowning himself in psychiatry to unravel his tortured soul? And why should any of them try to be their brother’s keeper?
The title, and the cast (well, most of it), would seem to suggest that these characters should be the unrepentant masters of their universe — they even play a Monopoly-esque board game their late mom invented called Privilege, to remind themselves of their advantages … but was the game meant to chasten them, or reassure them? They each seem to experience it differently. But in fact, there are other people onstage during these scenes of domesticity: Two Persons-in-Charge (Christine Sanders and Zo Pryor), who, between scenes, pose the men and occasionally eve direct their actions, like disinterested puppetmasters, forcing the men to play out their scenes are the P-in-Cs — or even, society — mandates. Maybe the privileges of masculine dominance … weigh on them? Perhaps all their homoerotic fraternal horseplay is a coping mechanism for human meaningful interaction.
The ultimate message of SWM — like Discord, directed by a woman, Christina Vela — isn’t how obnoxious these stand-ins for the mainstream are, but how that obnoxiousness may disguise many doubts and weaknesses. Maybe we’re supposed to have sympathy for the devil — not because he needs it, but because we need to give it to him.