Director’s Co-op

A mediocre play can be salvaged by a terrific production. The Goodman Theatre’s production of The Speed of Darkness is a perfect example. On the other hand, there’s the Director’s Co-op production of End of the World With Symposium to Follow. I was totally absorbed by the show, but I had to wonder why I was enjoying it so much. Almost everything about the production was inept.

The direction, by Elissa Bassler, was ill conceived. Even though the playwright specifies in the script that “there must be no waiting for a set change,” cast members lug chairs, desks, and other paraphernalia on and off the stage throughout the play. The blocking was strained and awkward. Even the props were out of control. In one scene one of the characters ignites the roast chicken he has been preparing. Besides the fact that it’s a silly allusion to a nuclear holocaust, the night I saw the show the actor couldn’t get the fire out and went scurrying out with the flaming dish in his hands. When I finally started breathing again, all I could think about was an escape route from the theater.

Bassler wasn’t the only culprit. The set, by David S.S. Davis, was shabby and rickety. Catherine Young’s lighting, striving for a film noir look, tended to be too noir. (In one scene an actor delivered a monologue with the shadow of a wayward wire falling directly across her face.) And the cast members–many of them obviously inexperienced–looked like they were left by the director to flounder on their own.

So why did I like this show so much? I have to assume the credit goes to the playwright, Arthur Kopit. Since the play premiered in 1984, he has tightened the script, focused the conflict, and created one of the most lucid explanations of the nuclear paradox I’ve ever encountered.

The play is about a playwright–portrayed as a tough, hard-drinking detective–who’s writing the play the audience is watching. The playwright, Michael Trent, played by William Bannon, accepts a commission from a wealthy businessman to write a play about nuclear disarmament. Trent has only one reason for accepting such an unappealing assignment. He needs the money, and the businessman, Philip Stone, is willing to pay any price to get the play written.

When Trent starts to research the subject, however, he slams right into the paradoxes inherent in our nuclear policy. For example, the purpose of nuclear weapons is to prevent their use, but firing first offers the only possibility of prevailing in a nuclear exchange. “The guy who goes first goes best,” says one of the experts Trent interviews. This is known as a preemptive strike, but one expert dislikes that term because it connotes aggression. He prefers “anticipatory retaliation.”

Without mentioning Reagan’s Star Wars plan, Kopit shows how a system capable of destroying incoming missiles would actually increase the threat of nuclear war by encouraging the Soviet Union to attack before the nuclear shield was in place. And without mentioning Gorbachev, Kopit shows how the Soviet leader is a “discontinuity”–an event, such as Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, that causes “a sudden and radical shift in the general mode of thinking.”

In short, End of the World is so lucid, provocative, and illuminating that it survives a production that is flaccid and muddled. The energy of the script allows even this production to gain in power and coherence as it progresses. Bannon becomes more anguished as Trent. In the second act Knight Houghton, who plays Philip Stone as a B-movie villain in the first act, delivers a moving monologue describing an atom-bomb blast he witnessed. (Houghton actually witnessed the first hydrogen-bomb blast in the South Pacific in 1952.) And by the end of the play, Kopit’s forceful voice is coming through clearly.