At a time when the news features heroes and villains, high-stakes choices and grand revelations, audiences are bound to find echoes of contemporary life on stage. But in its impending season, Broadway is embracing politics in an unusually concerted way. The run will include plays about race and justice (“American Son”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”), gay love and shame (“Torch Song Trilogy”, “The Prom”, “Choir Boy”), rapacious greed and hucksterism (“Glengarry Glen Ross”), perverse news-spinning (“Network”, “Ink”), and the grisly fate of a vain ruler who is undermined by his inner circle (“King Lear”).
“Theatre has a huge responsibility right now,” says Leigh Silverman, director of “The Lifespan of a Fact”, a new play about the relation between factual accuracy and deeper truths, which will have its world premiere at Broadway’s Studio 54 on October 18th. Ms Silverman says she was drawn to “Lifespan” because it wrestles with acutely topical questions about the moral duties of art, the relevance of small details when telling a larger story and the fragile nature of credibility. It is also very funny.
Written by Gordon Farrell, Jeremy Kareken and David Murrell, the play dramatises a real-life debate between John D’Agata, an acclaimed writer with an impressionistic notion of truth, and Jim Fingal, a young magazine intern given the task of fact-checking John’s essay about a teenage suicide in Las Vegas. Their fiddly exchanges over details, which spanned several years and spawned an unconventional co-written book, seem unlikely fodder for the stage. It is all the more impressive that this production—which stars Bobby Cannavale as the self-important essayist, Daniel Radcliffe as his pernickety fact-hound and Cherry Jones as their formidable editor—turns out to be so provocative and entertaining.
The drama is set against a backdrop of an industry in free-fall. Advertising sales are declining, subscribers are dying off and a “streamlined” editorial process has dispensed with the old fact-checking department. Although Jim’s scrupulous research veers into obsession, he is the play’s moral centre. His declaration that white lies not only weaken John’s arguments but “undermine society’s trust in itself” earned hearty applause during a recent preview.
Heidi Schreck’s arresting “What the Constitution Means to Me”, off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop, also benefits from grimly auspicious timing. A playwright and performer, Ms Schreck (pictured) knows the constitution well. She put herself through college with the money she won making speeches about it in high-school competitions. Now in her 40s, she revisits her guileless teenage talks with the wisdom of experience and finds a more troubling document. Created as it was by white, slave-owning men, the constitution’s promises long excluded women and non-whites. Dominated as it overwhelmingly has been by white, male justices, the Supreme Court has been slow to recognise the claims of others. Ms Schreck notes that women won the rights to use birth control and terminate unwanted pregnancies only in the early 1970s. Some of these gains may now be under threat.
But this quicksilver play is no dull civics lesson. Ms Schreck toggles between analysing the constitution and telling stories about the legacy of sexual abuse in her family and her own experience of having an abortion. She talks about a Supreme Court ruling of 2005 that found women have no federal right to police protection from violent partners, about a step-grandfather who raped her aunt, and about the time when, aged 17, she had sex with a boy because “it seemed like the polite thing to do”.
Her show is dark but not bleak. Ms Schreck probes the constitution’s flaws but also demonstrates the power of understanding it. Stirred viewers are sent home with a theatre-issued copy of the text tucked into their pockets.
Correction (October 12th 2018): The original version of this article misnamed one of the Broadway productions as “Prom Night”. We should have called it “The Prom”. Apologies.
This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline "She the people" (Oct 13th 2018)