Critic's Notebook

Four political dramas that play around with form

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic
Three new political plays (and a vintage one) turn mainstream forms subversive

The words "political drama" may evoke finger-pointing lectures to some, but the subtlest works of dramatic literature have a political dimension, and the most enduring political dramas have an artistic suppleness.

A false dichotomy between aesthetics and politics persists nonetheless. It bears reminding in this intensely polarized era that "political" is not the same as "ideological" and that an interest in power relations, economic divides and injustice is hardly proof of a programmatic imagination.

The New Group's sensational off-Broadway revival of David Rabe's Vietnam-era play "Sticks and Bones," with a stellar cast led by Bill Pullman and Holly Hunter, illuminates the way the best political dramas often entail a sly repurposing of genre — artistic form and political content conspiring together to throw into relief the blind spots in the conventional way of seeing.

This point was driven home by three new political dramas that on the surface have little in common but that they were written by prominent female playwrights unafraid to tackle difficult public concerns. Yet each was born out of an awareness that there's no better way of critiquing the social order than by grappling with how it has been popularly represented.

Just as "Sticks and Bones" parodies the world of sitcoms to explore how civilian America could not assimilate the horrors of the Vietnam War, Suzan-Lori Parks' "Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3," Young Jean Lee's "Straight White Men" and Rebecca Gilman's "Luna Gale" flirt with mainstream formats for subtly subversive ends.

"Father Comes Home From the Wars," which ended its run at the New York Public Theater this month and can be seen at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., in January, is a serial drama, a kind of staged miniseries about a slave grappling with the daunting prospect of freedom during the Civil War.

This long-form work (there are apparently six parts to come, a length rivaling "Roots") is one that only Parks could have written, with its poetic vernacular, jazzy rhythms, bursts of melodrama and African American-style magic realism all deployed to tally the harrowing toll imposed on African Americans for every step taken toward liberty.

"Straight White Men," which has its final performance Sunday at the Public Theater, is a family drama revolving around a father and his adult sons who have come together for the Christmas holidays. Lee's title suggests something quite radical, and there are moments early on when it seems as if she might be headed in an aggressively satiric direction.

But her play examines a rather traditional domestic crisis with a good deal of sympathy: One of the sons, the brightest yet least professionally ambitious, has a small emotional breakdown that disrupts the status quo of this all-male and decidedly left-leaning clan. While hewing closely to the most familiar dramaturgy, "Straight White Men" intermixes hyper-theatricality (the brothers are continually joshing with one another, co-opting cultural forms of "the other" to let off steam) with realism to expose the economic basis of white privilege.

"Luna Gale," about the custody of a baby taken from young, meth-addicted parents, has elements that will be familiar to fans of "Judging Amy" and police procedurals. But Gilman wants to do more than raise our awareness of social ills while spinning a gripping yarn. Her play, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through Dec. 21 in a top-notch Goodman Theatre production directed by Robert Falls, makes unexpected connections between a social worker, Christian zealots and drug users in a dramatic mural of contemporary America in which everyone is desperately chasing an elusive miracle.

These works turn to recognizable genres only to dissolve them. Their waywardness, much like "Sticks and Bones," depends on the established paths they playfully pursue.

Much of the fascination with Rabe's play, which concludes its run at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Sunday, is the slipperiness of its style. Earlier I said that the work parodies sitcoms. Technically this is true: The parents are named Ozzie and Harriet and the set of Scott Elliott's superbly calibrated production resembles "The Brady Bunch" suburban homestead.

But much of the still-bracing novelty of this work, which won the 1972 Tony Award for best play yet curiously hasn't been frequently revived since, has to do with the unsettling mix of satire and psychological realism, of quotidian domesticity and florid Expressionism, of comic and tragic extremity. Flitting between archetype and individualized portraiture, Pullman and Hunter deliver two of the most thrillingly agile performances of the year.

"Sticks and Bones" has an unwieldy quality, yet it retains the urgency with which Rabe, a Vietnam vet, wrote it. As idiosyncratic as it is paradigmatic, the play now seems like one of the forgotten masterpieces of the 1970s — and an ideal production for either the Mark Taper Forum or Geffen Playhouse to import.

Each of the first three parts of "Father Comes Home From the Wars" revolves around a fraught decision to stay or leave. The protracted (and occasionally overcooked) suspense, with internal conflict heightening the external stakes, put me in mind of the way episodes of "Breaking Bad" are constructed. (Parks has always absorbed influences from across the cultural spectrum.) There's a fair amount of treading water, especially in Part 1. But this epic work, fluidly directed by Jo Bonney, entices us onto this marathon journey for a purpose greater than any you'll likely stumble across while channel surfing: to trace an underlying, and apparently (post-Ferguson) undying, pattern of painful progress in African American history. Parks' unfettered imagination — there's a talking dog, for heaven's sake! — sustains the theatrical buoyancy throughout.

Lee's work, which she directed herself with a dynamite four-actor ensemble, is most eloquent when it bursts out of its tactful realistic frame — when rap music blares and the characters dance with violent abandon or when they act out with juvenile rituals that provide a reprieve from the repression of the everyday. Her play suggests — perhaps a tad too gently — that for straight white men the only unpardonable sin is to turn one's back on unearned advantages. Lee uncovers the monetary basis propping up a diminished yet still-prevailing demographic, though her drama is more suggestively insightful than rigorously developed.

The protagonist of "Luna Gale" is a social worker (magnificently played by Mary Beth Fisher) who may be the most reasonable character in the play, but that doesn't mean she is wholly deserving of our trust. Gilman by degrees shakes our confidence in this character, who turns out not to be the network TV drama protagonist she resembles. She's too real, and her flaws force us to look beyond the sensational aspects of the case she's working on and confront a deeper tale of faith and perseverance in the absence of moral clarity or comfort.

Political drama may be relegated to the margins of the American theater, but these new works, employing a timeless strategy, represent some of the year's most artful dramatic offerings.

Twitter: @charlesmcnulty

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