Review: "Brecht: Call and Respond" Showcases a Terrific Trio of One-Act Plays

Brecht: Call and Respond


The Jewish Wife

Written by Bertolt Brecht

Translated by Eric Bentley


Sunset Point

Written by Arlene Hutton


Self Help in the Anthropocene

Written by Kristin Idaszak

Directed by Jerry Heymann

Presented by New Light Theater Project at Paradise Factory

64 E 4th St., Manhattan, NYC

January 30-February 15, 2020
Susan Lynskey and Michael Aguirre in The Jewish Wife. Photo by Hunter Canning

History repeats itself, with consequential variations, in Brecht: Call and Respond. Part of the Spotlight Series presented by New Light Theater Project (which also recently presented Everything is Super Great, reviewed by us here), Brecht: Call and Respond comprises a trio of one-act plays, each featuring a pair of characters, transports audiences to the past, present, and future of a world riven by often-minimized prejudice and oppression. The cliché that everything old is new again may not always be good for our planet, but it does make for some very good theater.

Brecht: Call and Respond brings together Bertolt Brecht's The Jewish Wife, from his 1938 Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, with two new works: Sunset Point, by Arlene Hutton, and Self Help in the Anthropocene, by Kristin Idaszak, that enter into dialogue with Brecht's text. The Jewish Wife begins with the titular woman (Susan Lynskey), who shares the name Judith with the Biblical widow who beheads the invading general Holofernes, slowly, thoughtfully, and hesitantly packs amid a silence broken only by her footsteps and the scrape of wooden drawers. Judith then makes several phone calls of varied but restrained emotion to inform people that she is going away for a short time and afterward begins composing a note to leave for her husband, Fritz (Michael Aguirre). The picture that emerges of why she is leaving her country and her husband and of how he reacts to the discovery of her impending departure forms the thematic core of the play. Both Aguirre and Lynskey perform their characters as communicating through a layer of obfuscating reserve, with Aguirre's Fritz remaining outwardly even-keeled when confronted with Judith's intention and Lynskey beautifully communicating Judith's continually modulating effort to contain her passion.
Gerry Bamman and Lindsay Brill in Sunset Point. Photo by Hunter Canning
Packed bags establish one of the links between The Jewish Wife and the second play of the triad, Sunset Point, which centers on another couple, Rachel (Lindsay Brill), who shares her name with another Biblical wife, and Henson (Gerry Bamman). This time, both halves of the couple have suitcases, Rachel, a poet and Henson's fiancĂ©, having returned from family-oriented travel but not yet unpacked and Henson, an author, arriving home from a conference to begin the play. Henson complains about the airport lounge, the "handlers" sent by the conference, and having to keep track of people's preferred pronouns—what some might dismissively label "first-world problems" but which might here more accurately be termed "white Christian male problems." Rachel laughs at what she calls (perhaps excuses as) his grumpiness, but she does so affectionately. Henson presents her with a signed copy of Michael Chabon's alternate history novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which itself can be seen as an intertext for the plays in Brecht: Call and Respond. However, the way, for instance, that Henson gets Rachel to file his mess of receipts, not only suggests that he is used to getting others to do things for him but also that his affable neediness has a hint of manipulation about it. The couple's reunion becomes increasingly fraught due to a mysterious FedEx delivery and a problematic "surprise" that brings issue of ancestry, legacy, and antisemitism to the fore. Aside from any personal self-centeredness, Henson's denial in regard to potential discrimination against Rachel bespeaks his own privilege. His confession of the self-doubt that is one of the drivers of his "surprise" accords him some sympathy, but his willful obliviousness, particularly of his privilege, echoes Fritz's failure to remove his own blinders in Brecht's play. By the end of the play, Henson's early comment that he couldn't get past all the Yiddish in the beginning of Chabon's book is no less funny but certainly seems more significant. There is a lot of humor in Sunset Point, and Brill and Bamman, in addition to being funny, make Rachel and Hanson's relationship detailed and lived-in, in turn making Rachel's hurt that much more affecting.
Lucy Lavely in Self Help in the Anthropocene. Photo by Hunter Canning
Sunset Point may seem to foreground the personal over the political, but the issues at stake for Rachel and Henson are bigger than any particular couple.The same is true of the spouses in Self Help in the Anthropocene, the concluding play in the sequence. After the relationship in action of Sunset Point, Self Help returns us to a structure in which, as in The Jewish Wife, we spend most of the play with one character. That character is Joy (Lucy Lavely), and Joy is attempting to Marie-Kondo the living space that she shares with her geologist wife (Susan Lynskey) before guests arrive for a party. As she sorts through the piles of stuff strewn on the floor, we discover from Joy that parties are illicit activities in her climate-change-ravaged future. Hers is a world in which movement is policed, "climate camps" exist, and commodities such as coffee and chocolate are produced exclusively in laboratories. Self Help highlights the direct and important connection between climate disaster and consumption patterns. Joy's comment that someone might think that they are wealthy given all of the objects that they have acquired recalls a sharply observed moment in the recent BBC Dracula in which the vampire, having been hibernating over a hundred years, enters an average twentieth-century home and marvels that, with all of the technological marvels that we take for granted as necessities, it must be the abode of an aristocrat. Joy is thinking less about refrigerators and televisions, though, than things such as plastic novelty items. She notes that people won't produce items unless other people will buy them. Why, then, the question follows, do we buy so much junk when we know it is junk? The pressure of social habits no doubt plays a role, but Joy also points to the addictive quality of acquisition: she says, in some great lines, that she doesn't remember why she bought something, but she remembers how it felt to buy it. She also remembers the immediate deflation of the high of making the purchase. In another memorable piece of dialogue, Joy remarks that one can see death but can't see extinction, and the play also introduces the intriguing concept of ecological grief. Self Help, like Sunset Point, nods to Brecht in the idea that people insist on deluding themselves that problems will surely resolve themselves in a few weeks. This is a hard position to hold during an ongoing mass extinction, but the ease offered by apathy is certainly seductive. It is a nice touch that Lynskey, who plays Judith, also plays Joy's wife, whose role in Self Help echoes but inverts the role of the Fritz in Brecht's play. Lavely herself is superb, delivering a captivating and finely drawn performance.

All three plays in Brecht: Call and Respond evince parallels with the present-day United States that seem almost too obvious to mention, from the steady, normalizing creep of authoritarianism to the uptick in antisemitism to the refusal to change consumption patterns despite the accelerating destruction of the global environment. Brecht: Call and Respond furnishes a varied but cohesive theatrical experience, three microcosmic illuminations of of how we create, exploit, deny, or navigate divisions. Unlike the troubles that some of its characters brush aside, Brecht: Call and Respond actually will end in a few weeks, so see it while you can.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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