It has been said that Richard Nixon, whose red-baiting began during his earliest days in Washington, was this country’s only Cold War politician who could recognize Communist China diplomatically without being branded a commie sympathizer. At the very least, anyone else who tried it would have had to contend with Nixon.
It initially seems that something like the reverse of that situation is being given a workout by Theater J in Jules Feiffer’s ’50s reminiscence, A Bad Friend. Who, after all, but Feiffer, whose acerbic liberal cartoons brightened the Village Voice for decades, could get away with setting a sitcom in a Brooklyn Heights household where Jewish family members naively view Joseph Stalin as a crusader against anti-Semitism?
It turns out Feiffer isn’t mining this situation for comedy—at least not exclusively. Rather, he’s blending autobiography, nostalgia, showbiz, and politics into a cautionary tale about the perils of unblinking liberalism in a reactionary age. Theater J’s timing qualifies as pretty uncanny (A Bad Friend opened to the critics less than six hours after John Kerry’s concession speech), but even with electoral tallies promising a fresh reactionary menace and an audience primed for wisdom from a longtime political guru, the evening didn’t pack much emotional punch. Nick Olcott’s staging, uncharacteristically clumsy and badly miscast, is partly to blame, but I’m going to hazard a guess that a stronger production would still have trouble overcoming the script’s weaknesses.
Chief among them is a first act that goes nowhere and takes its time getting there. The evening begins with Mom (Valerie Leonard) spouting admiring bromides about Uncle Joe and all he’s doing for the Soviet Union, Dad (Jim Jorgensen) nodding agreeably as he reads his Daily Worker, and 18-year-old daughter Rose (Lily Balsen) kibitzing from the sidelines. Rose is skeptical enough about her parents’ far-left politics to risk mockery by declaring herself a “liberal”—mockery that’s immediately provided by her father: “A liberal is someone who has his feet firmly planted in midair.” But this rebellious teen is also a curious sort, open to the ideas espoused by her parents as long as they’re mouthed by someone else—say, the family’s smooth screenwriter uncle, Morty (Field Blauvelt), who sneaks leftist sentiments into his movie scripts, or Emil (Lawrence Redmond), a middle-aged artist Rose befriends on the Esplanade. She’s even willing to spar with a dapper young FBI agent (Peter Wylie) who shows up after school to flatter her and quiz her about her parents’ comings and goings.
In Act 2, Emil gives Rose a copy of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and symbolism reigns thereafter, with members of Rose’s circle standing in a bit too blatantly for elements of society at large. Everyone, save the FBI agent, is soon in crisis, either called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, thrown in jail, or coming to blows over Stalin’s legacy, with Rose proving a typically narcissistic teenager by assuming it’s all her fault. This flurry of activity is dramatically welcome, given the stasis of the first act, but it raises a few too many questions: Why, for instance, would a high-school student who knows enough not to tell anyone at school that her folks read the Daily Worker neglect to mention to anyone that an FBI agent has been tailing her? How did the agent miss a weekly dalliance on the Esplanade? Did Rose’s very skittish parents simply overlook the presence of An American Tragedy in their daughter’s bookbag?
None of these questions would likely arise if Olcott’s staging were more persuasive, but although Feiffer has said in interviews that A Bad Friend is loosely based on his own childhood, the director has made precious few moments ring true at Theater J. Lewis Folden’s setting is a beige-on-tan limbo with piles of yellowing newspapers standing in for everything from living-room furniture to park benches, and headlines about the HUAC hearings and photos of the Rosenbergs are projected onto hanging fabric panels on occasion to no particular effect. Performances range from strident (Leonard’s Stalin-obsessed mom) to loud (Jorgensen’s henpecked dad) to painfully broad (Wylie’s smug FBI agent). Balsen is decently appealing as Rose, but she hasn’t found ways to modulate a character who essentially spends the entire evening whining. Blauvelt’s screenwriter and Redmond’s painter seem comparatively nuanced, possibly because both characters turn out to be not at all what they appear when we meet them.
Alas, they’re minor figures in a familial story that seems somehow smaller than life—not cartoonish, thank heaven, but not nearly as compelling as the saga the evening set out to tell, of what the left left behind. CP