Next Theatre

The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity –from “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats

They’re very ordinary things, these what-if discussions. I seem to have them all the time, either with myself or with others. Like so: a friend of mine and I were talking about capital punishment recently. I said I was against it. He said, What if, like they asked Dukakis: What if your wife and children were to be raped and murdered, horribly, right before your very eyes? I said I’d be awfully upset–but I still wouldn’t believe in capital punishment, because I honestly don’t believe in it. My friend sniggered at me, and I got mad.

So I killed him. No, I didn’t. Not really. That’s just a joke. Why should I kill him? He had a right to snigger. All what-if discussions must inevitably end in a snigger–it’s impossible that they wouldn’t–simply because they’re what-if discussions, and therefore abstract. You can be as sincere and high-minded as you like in the abstract. The real test comes when something actually happens.

Terry Sinclair’s good at what-ifs. One of three close friends who form the core of Jon Robin Baitz’s The Film Society, Terry’s got the self-righteous, earnest arrogance of someone who argues abstractions and never comes out wrong. He prides himself on his moral character. He fancies himself a rebel. He plays the guru. He dabbles in social activism.

And people let him. Something of a star at Blenheim, the all-white South African boys’ school from which he graduated and at which he’s been teaching, Terry’s tolerated when he offers his little antiapartheid protests–like arranging for a colored musical group to perform at a school function. It’s just Terry making a fuss.

But then something actually happens. One of Terry’s fusses turns into a scandal when a black minister he invited to Blenheim is arrested and murdered by the local police. Aroused parents demand Terry’s ouster, and get it–leaving Terry with a tap on his phone, a sudden lack of funds, no passport, and his first taste of what it’s like when a what-if comes true.

He doesn’t handle it well. In no time at all he’s begging for another chance. The ugly, corrupt society he loved to twit–loved to play chicken with–means more to him than he’d imagined. Is more of him than he’d imagined. He can’t survive outside it, and he wants back in.

His friends and colleagues are equally bereft. From his wife to his best friend to Blenheim’s proprietor, a Mr. Sutter, they all either go rubberlegged or abandon him entirely. They give up, forgetting whatever principles they might have thought they had, leaving the field free for racists and opportunists. For the people who don’t bother with what-ifs. The worst are full of passionate intensity.

A sly, hard, deceptively funny parable about the failure of decency, Baitz’s play could as easily be set in Weimar Germany or Likud Israel. Or flag-waving, drug-hating, Bill of Rights-destroying Bush America. Wherever the so-called good people allow themselves to be co-opted and confused. Wherever they lose their nerve. Which, more often than not, they do. The best lack all conviction.

Fortunately, director Harriet Spizziri and her small cast never lose their nerve. This production is as good as I’ve ever seen from Next Theatre. Si Osborne’s square-jawed, pleasantly fierce Terry crumples all too vividly when the sanctions hit, while Matt DeCaro discloses the rot and anger beneath his amiability as Terry’s pal, Jonathan. DeCaro has a great speech about a failed rite of passage, and handles it beautifully. James Deuter’s appropriately droll as Mr. Sutter.

Kate Goehring’s interesting, if a little fuzzy around the edges, as Terry’s wife, Nan; her arguments with him seem curiously insubstantial, though they’re rooted in solid subjects such as unpaid bills. The only real disappointment, however, is Deborah Davis, who completely blows her chance to make a magnificently vile monster of Jonathan’s mother.

Robert G. Smith’s set, surrounded with vertical beams resembling prison bars–and, outside those bars, painted forms that look now like clouds, now like a map of Africa–gets the point across nicely.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.