“Problematic” is one of the more overused and hence meaningless words in the critical/academic lexicon, denoting, with a shrug that is at once coy and noncommittal, any work of art whose political implications lead us toward an ambivalence we are unwilling to disentangle or stomp out altogether.
And yet, contemplating Very Little Theatre’s current production of It Can’t Happen Here, I am led with queasy reluctance to this conclusion: It is problematic. It has its moments, some of them downright chilling.
But artistically and politically, I can’t shake the feeling that this cautionary play has the queer effect of yelling “Duck!” five minutes after your friend gets beaned by a fast ball. It feels simultaneously dire and distant, and lacking in the urgency that should be its main point.
Based on Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 speculative satire about the rise of a fascist demagogue who unseats Franklin Roosevelt for the U.S. presidency, Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen’s 2016 adaptation was written as Donald Trump was ascending, with all due shock and awe, to his current improbable position.
So apparently it can happen here, and it has, which leaves this play in a weird nether zone of warning us about something that has already occurred, like a post-dystopia. One of the eerier experiences of watching the play is beholding audience members shake their head and chuckle knowingly at the Trump-like “Buzz” Windrip (Rebecca Lowe), an authoritarian blowhard whose nationalistic, jingoistic diatribes rally the angry hordes left behind by American prosperity.
Of course, it is a journalist, Doremus Jessup (Russell Dyball), who smells a rat and fights Windrip with a withering editorial that unleashes the tyrant’s hell. The first act details the meteoric rise of Windrip, and its terror reflected in Jessup’s growing alarm, and then panic.
A satellite of characters surrounding Jessup, including his rebellious daughter Sissy (Sabrina Goss) and his discontented employee Shad (Gary Lamolin), a Windrip loyalist, reflect or inspire this panic to varying degrees, creating an effective and intimate portrait of the ideological confusion and animosity that arise in the face of murderous political divisions.
The second act is a rapid-fire lesson in the terror tactics of a totalitarian state, including beatings, murder and imprisonment, as an underground of political opposition sweeps Doremus into action. Despite the action, this play’s second half is less bracing; it moves too quickly, giving the impression of a primer on fascist shenanigans too broad to build empathy for all the characters scrunched under the wheels of its terror.
Director Stanley Coleman’s grip on the material seems uncertain. The play moves between drama and remedial object lesson, creating a pace that is uneven as quieter family moments give way to disquisitions on various political acumen. The sets are sparse and angular, giving the impression of Soviet brutalism, which belies the distinctly American brand of populism being flayed.
All in all, the play is a bit clunky and removed, an artifact that can’t quite find its feet. This isn’t all the production’s fault; the social realist work of Sinclair, so distinct to its time, was diagnostic and satirical, and updating it to the era of Trump creates a strange sort of disconnect — like treating an illness after it’s already killed the patient.
Better works on the rise and reign of fascism — such as the recent cinematic satire The Death of Stalin or Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman — find the timely in the universal by allowing the audience a bit of room for imagination without leading us by the nose to what is momentarily obvious.
It Can’t Happen Here shows us nothing new (unless you’re still failing to realize how badly this is all going to end), and it tends to inspire nothing more than an acknowledgment: Yep, here we are. Like Orwell’s 1984 hitting the New York Times bestseller list a couple years back — little late to the party, guys.
Of course, hats off to VLT for mounting this production, no small act of courage and daring in this so-called political climate (as was their 2013 production of McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan). It’s understandable to stumble when confronting the enormity of our catastrophe. It’s also important to understand that, as Orwell said, all art is political — but not all politics makes art. ν
It Can’t Happen Here runs through Nov. 2 at Very Little Theatre; times and tickets at TheVLT.com or 541-344-7751.