Novelists bristle when accused of writing insufficiently disguised autobiography; memoirists rankle at charges of invention. Playwrights? They can do whatever they want. After the Revolution is the first of two Amy Herzog–penned plays that feature her grandmother, Leepee Joseph, whom she’s renamed “Vera” for the stage, though she leaves the family name intact. (Herzog’s other grandmother play, 4000 Miles, got a strong staging at Studio Theatre last spring.) Herzog’s grandfather, Joe Joseph, is a presence in both dramas, too: Although they’re set after his death, his towering legacy as an American Communist who stood up to Joe McCarthy and suffered the slings and arrows of the blacklist hangs over everything, and his descendants talk about him endlessly.
A troubling discovery about Joe’s activities during World War II—stuff the real-life Joe Joseph really did—is the MacGuffin that drives After the Revolution, Herzog’s overearnest, not-funny-enough family drama. Though it premiered in 2010, it’s set in the The Matrix-Midnite Vultures-End of History era of 1999, where “It’s hard to imagine things getting much worse!” as one insufferably self-righteous character, based on Herzog’s dad, declares.
The irony in that line is fully intentional, naturally, but the way it comes to sum up the play’s underfed stakes surely is not. The story centers around Emma (Megan Anderson, energetic and likeable), Vera’s fresh-out-of-law-school granddaughter, who has founded a legal defense fund in her Marxist grandpa’s name to help the unjustly persecuted. She’s working to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the activist and journalist who spent 30 years on death row following his 1981 conviction for killing a Philadelphia police officer. When Emma finds out what her father (Peter Birkenhead) never told her about his father, she stops speaking to him, freezes out her bland nice-guy boyfriend (Carlos Saldaña), and abdicates her professional obligations to the fund.
That’s more or less the logline: A brilliant and successful 26-year-old anti-death penalty activist gets mad at her dad and stops answering her phone for a few weeks. Are you riveted?
Admittedly, you could reduce any story to sound so frivolous. But Herzog’s attempt to use her own family’s history as a microcosm of the dissolution of the American Left after World War II just doesn’t stick. Set designer Misha Kachman tries to hammer home the allegorical payload by putting the actors in front of a giant red curtain, but for all that grasping for grandeur, I never shook the sense I was watching privileged people wrestle with extremely privileged problems. I mean, forsaking your phone here in 2013—when Mumia remains alive and jailed for life without parole despite the tireless efforts of Rage Against the Machine and The Beastie Boys, though Philadelphia officially stopped trying to execute him in 2011—would be a bigger deal than it was back when your phone was stuck to your desk.
It’s a pity that Vera, who was at the center of 4000 Miles, appears in only a handful of scenes. Nancy Robinette does a masterful job of conveying this old, selectively hard-of-hearing revolutionary’s disappointment in the generations that followed hers, but also of critiquing her granddaughter’s preference in men with a raised eyebrow or inflection on a syllable. Susan Rome and Jeff Allin are both strong in what should be thankless roles as Emma’s stepmom and uncle, each of whom tries to broker peace. Allin, especially, has almost no function except to rue his own kids’ lack of interest in history or politics, but that’s funny—it helps to know that not every member of this family speaks in PowerPoint slides all the time. When Robinette, Rome, or Allin is onstage, the play gets a chance to breathe.
Nothing stymies empathy like envy, perhaps: I realized later that I wanted to be part of this clan—so righteous, so loving, so connected to one another—more than I cared to know what happens to them. They’re so utterly beyond reproach it’s as if the Huxtables suddenly started arguing about the WTO protests in Seattle. Even Emma’s younger sister, a recovering addict, never lets anyone down. A minor story told in a major key, this thing feels like its true subject is the one brief lapse in Emma’s otherwise unbroken streak of lifetime overachievement. This too shall pass. It already has.