THE BASICS: IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE, a Buffalo update of a 2015 play by Berkeley Rep’s Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, adapted from the 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis, presented by Subversive Theatre, directed by Kurt Schneiderman, starring Dennis Keefe, Christopher Standart, and a dozen others, runs through October 7, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. at The Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave., third floor (408-0499). www.subversivetheatre.org Runtime: Over 2 hours with one intermission. Bottled water $1.00. On stage violence.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: In 1935, the American novelist and social critic Sinclair Lewis, alarmed at the rise of fascism (Nazis) in Europe and the popularity of Huey Long’s early campaign against FDR, wrote a novel about demagogue “Buzz” Windrip who, after playing on people’s fears and promising social and economic reforms along with a return to patriotism and traditional values, actually becomes President of the United States. Windrip attacks the free press and then uses the military and the courts to impose martial law against which a small but plucky band resists. In 1936 the novel was turned into a play, in 2015 that play was updated by The Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and in 2017 some minor tweaks were added by Buffalo’s Subversive Theatre whose motto is “putting dissent at center stage.”
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Okay, so obviously this play was remounted in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, a man who works from the demagogue’s playbook every day. It’s entirely in keeping with Subversive’s mission, but with so many more publicly accessible voices crying “foul” against Trumpism (Saturday Night Live, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers, Rachel Maddow, etc.) in addition to extremely granular analysis daily in the New York Times or the Washington Post, are we really learning anything here?
If this play were offered at a high school where the curriculum could be designed to follow up on the themes, perhaps some real, nuanced learning could take place, but for what I imagine to be a typical college-educated, leftist-leaning Subversive audience, this didn’t bring anything new to the table.
In fact, Berkeley Rep’s Tony Taccone, the playwright himself, said: “Art shouldn’t fall into any kind of simplistic, didactic haranguing, and topicality is a dangerous thing, because you always get outstripped by reality.”
One of the biggest challenges when adapting a novel to a movie or play is cutting and trimming and letting everything go that doesn’t move the action forward, not to mention choosing one, and only one, major plot or “through line.” This play had too many characters – 25 – played by too many actors -14- to allow for careful direction and rehearsal time. Even after eight performances, many lines were muffed when we went. But while details and sub-plots are the purview of a novel, what live theater does better is to offer an emotional, human connection. We in the audience can really love the hero, hate the villain, and suffer with the victims. But here the many characters were mostly two-dimensional stereotypes. Honestly, our favorite was Chris Standart’s portrayal of the evil judge – Commander Swan – who was deliciously wicked in the long tradition of villains who steal the show.
To be fair, Dennis Keefe was believable as the sober, reflective journalist Doremus Jessup, the hero of the play, because he had his moments of internal conflict. Unfortunately, as the bad thug Shad Ledue, Bryan Figueroa wasn’t allowed to use any of his depth as an actor to bring out nuances that may have been in the story or even to invent some to round out his character.
Well-deserved applause goes to two high schoolers, both at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, both last praised on this stage in RADIUM GIRLS: Corinne McLoughlin as Jessup’s daughter Sissy, and Molly/Oliver Lewars as Jessup’s son Philip. If either goes away to college, we hope that they’ll come back to Buffalo after graduation.
Other highlights included steps in the direction of color-blind casting by director Schneiderman, some funny sound effects by Bob Van Valin, some effective back lit scenes (sort of a Subversive trademark) by Hasheen DeBerry, and some tongue-in-cheek costumes by Diane McNamara.
Next up is the play HONKY, a 2014 play by Greg Kalleres, directed by Gary Earl Ross, described as follows in Dramatists Play Services: “When a young African American is shot for a pair of basketball shoes, sales triple among white teens. Are ghetto-glorifying commercials to blame, or is it the white CEO that only sees dollar signs? Luckily, there’s a new pill on the market guaranteed to cure racism. HONKY is a darkly comedic look at five people, white and black, as they navigate the murky waters of race, rhetoric and basketball shoes.”
In all, seven plays are scheduled this 15th season, and it’s not too soon to mention SLUT, a 2013 play by Katie Cappiello, “developed by members of The Arts Effect All-Girl Theater Company to address the damaging impact of slut-shaming and slut culture.” (Huffington Post, April 11, 2014). This will star emerging student actors at Buffalo’s Performing Arts High School June 21 to July 7, 2018 under the direction of Kelly M. Beuth.
You can contribute to Subversive Theatre at various levels reminiscent of terms heard during the McCarthy hearings: “Sympathizer – Fellow Traveler – Rabble-Rouse – Agitator – Cadre.”
As mentioned, IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE has three more performances.
Rating: Two Buffalos
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!
Lead image L-R Corinne McLoughlin, Bryan Figueroa, Dennis Keefe, Chris Standart