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Every generation should have its own George Bernard Shaw, and I think I finally know whom I’d nominate to fill the old redbeard’s shoes: George F. Walker.
Though best known locally for his acid, emotionally acute domestic dramediesCriminals in Love, Escape From Happiness, and Better Living, to name three of recent vintagethe prolific Canadian playwright is also one of the modern stage’s sharpest social satirists. Not content to be the only American dramatist besides Sam Shepard who can make alienation funny without denaturing its fury, Walker keeps insisting on simultaneously doing something else that Shaw had a knack for, but that most contemporary playwrights don’t seem able to do: He makes ideological concerns as involving for an audience as emotional ones.
That’s what he’s up to in Heaven, a ferociously entertaining rant about hatred and the hereafter, currently receiving its U.S. premiere courtesy of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. The story centers on Jimmy (Mitchell Hébert), a thoroughly dyspeptic human rights lawyer whose heart appears to have calcified against the very people for whom he’s supposed to be fighting. Wary, angry, and aggressively provocative (“Everybody hates everybody; let’s just go with that and see where it takes us”), Jimmy courts discord at every turn, peppering his conversations with ethnic slurs that he carefully calibrates so that they just skirt the bounds of propriety.
Listening to this misanthrope, you’d swear he was the enemy. No sooner has he called his Irish-Catholic parents “ignorant, bigoted creeps” than he’s taunting his wife with rhetorical jabs at her rabbi. Five sentences into a conversation with black vagrant Derek (David Lamont Wilson), he’s making racial assumptions that would get him booed off The Jerry Springer Show. And he barely flinches when a grieving undercover cop named Karl (Rick Foucheux) accuses him of having driven a fellow officer (and mutual friend) to suicide by hounding him off the witness stand in a police-brutality case. If Jimmy doesn’t sneer openly at the 16-year-old heroin addict who can’t even juggle two balls, let alone three, you figure it’s only because she’s so hapless that even he knows it would be overkill to say so.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving. Jimmy is the evening’s heroconflicted, yes, but principled in his cynicism. His wife, Judy (Naomi Jacobson), may appear more empathetic, but she’s having an affair behind her husband’s back. Her rabbi (John Lescault) is, for all his indignantly sputtered pieties, a two-faced equivocator who may not even believe in God. The apparently innocuous vagrant is a street operator who is also the addict’s supplier. And Karl, whose badge makes him one of the supposed good guys in society’s ongoing battle against lawlessness, will shortly reveal himself to be a monster who makes the rest of them look downright upright.
Except for the juggler (adeptly underplayed by Emerie Geiger Snyder, who seems equally at home on a unicycle and on stilts), these folks are aggressivelyalmost savagelyarticulate. Rich, meaty characters with strong points of view, they’re hardly Shavian in their sometimes obscenity-laced speech patterns, but as they stake out positions on everything from tribal warfare to ethical standards, you’ll hear definite echoes of the old socialist’s rhetorical flourishes.
You’ll also note a nod to Shaw in Walker’s flip use of theology as a dramatic device. The story begins in a sterile, urban no man’s landa park bench surrounded by designer Jim Kronzer with brick walls that all but blot out the skythen moves, after a series of violent deaths, to the otherworldly realm of the title. The transition to a stylized afterlife turns out to be liberating (and is nicely managed via a between-the-bricks assist from lighting designer Jay A. Herzog). Where better, after all, to argue social theory than the one spot where it can have no impact? Unfettered by real-world restraints, the discussion can take flight, not merely in thought enlivened by eloquence, but also in deliciously staged kung-fu parodies, Astaire-Rogers dance numbers, and even a celestial stand-up routine.
Credit director Howard Shalwitz with making the most of those flights of fancy while keeping tight rein on the arguments they underscore. Shalwitz has always evidenced a sure hand with this sort of genre-bending material, and he’s in top form here, especially when the second half of the play turns into a series of wild riffs on No Exit. Sartre’s guiding notion in that existentialist vision of the hereafter was that “hell is other people.” Walker has a ball establishing that heaven, too, is other people…and not at all the ones you might expect.
The performances at Woolly Mammoth are sharp, brutally funny, and on occasion gasp-producing. Foucheux’s evil cop is a wonderfully nasty creationvicious enough that you can’t wait for him to get his comeuppance even if you know that the playwright will find a way to subvert it. Jacobson’s Judy is vulnerable and questing under a tough exterior, but also strong enough that you can imagine her standing up to her troubled, troubling husband. Lescault makes the rabbi’s wishy-washiness amusingly complex. And Wilson, whose physical dexterity (he takes stage punches better than anyone I’ve ever seen) is matched by a supple way with words, is terrific as a vagrant with a surprisingly astute worldview.
Best of all, though, is Hébert, whose acid delivery and pained expressions keep you involved with a protagonist who’s about as annoying as any hero you’ll have seen on stage in years. The temptation to showboat must be considerable, particularly when the playwright gives Jimmy a 10-minute, message-heavy soliloquy at the end of the evening. But Hébert keeps the character focusedand the focus on character. It’s a fine, nuanced performance.
I should probably stop beating my Shaw analogy to death, but let’s note one last similarity: Like that other activist-turned-dramatist, Walker likes the sound of his own voice. He tends to let his arguments go on too long at times, as is made clear when he has his leading character cap 20 minutes of philosophical debate with the sort of one-liner”If everyone isn’t invited to the party, the party stinks,” say, or “He hates people; I hate what people do”that effectively sums up everything that’s just been said.
Fortunately for audiences, Walker is also a savvy ironist. Each time Jimmy does something like that, the author lets him think briefly that he’s having an actual epiphany…and then, all heaven breaks loose. CP