Playwright Amy Herzog enters a very specific world in After the Revolution, now receiving its regional premiere at Curious Theatre: the passionate, close-knit, hyper-idealistic world of Jewish Communism in New York City during the early decades of the twentieth century. In The Romance of American Communism, Vivian Gornick showed this to have been a movement powered by the horrors of fascism — Franco's Spain and, later, Hitler's Germany — as well as a determination to relieve the lot of the poor, and concern for social justice and civil rights born out of the struggle of the Jewish people themselves. For these activists, Soviet Russia was a model. But when Khruschev denounced Stalin during the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, and then, some months later, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, American Communists were forced to re-evaluate. Some renounced Marxism, some continued to believe in its basic tenets but left the Party, and still others became apologists for Stalin.
Among these deniers — or semi-deniers — are members of the Joseph family in Herzog's play. Paterfamilias Ben doesn't really want to discuss Stalin but remains a proud Marxist, committed to spreading the doctrine at the school where he teaches. Faced with criticism, his stepmother, Vera, implies that perhaps Stalin wasn't really that bad.
The year is 1999. Ben's father, Joe Joseph, is a towering figure in the family's mythology, a hero of the left who stood up to the bullying of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Ben's daughter Emma — the play's protagonist — has inherited her father and grandfather's passion for politics. A lawyer, she heads the Joe Joseph Fund, which seeks justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a real-life Black Panther sentenced to death for the murder of a policeman. When she discovers that her revered grandfather was in fact a spy for the Soviets during World War II, her entire world is shattered. She cuts off communication with her father because he hadn't told her, argues with Miguel, her lover and co-worker, and contemplates ditching the fund.
After the Revolution
Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 19, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org.
Didacticism runs deep in the entire family. Emma instantly calls Joe a traitor. Ben can only defend his father in the stale terms of the long-ago left. Various other characters contribute some context and nuance. Miguel points out that the United States and Russia were allies during World War II, when Joe Joseph was doing his spying; that millions of Russians died in that war; and that the Russian contribution to the Allied victory was invaluable. He wants Emma to focus on their work for Abu-Jamal. Morty, a soft-hearted, elderly donor, simply chuckles and says almost everyone was in contact with Russians in those days, and no one thought anything of sharing information. Dyed-in-the-wool Vera descants on the good intentions of those early Jewish Communists. Meanwhile, stepmother Mel confesses to Emma that she herself came to understand the narrowness of American Communism when Ben's parents refused to accept the validity of a cause for which she'd protested and gone briefly to jail because it wasn't Party-approved.
Through their estrangement, Ben, helpless, tries again and again to reach out to Emma. Herzog has said that she sees her play as centering more on the father-daughter relationship than on politics — but the Josephs aren't the kind of people you can readily empathize with. Ben (a passionate performance by Gordon McConnell) really is a bit of a blind dope, and Emma (a not entirely convincing Lauren Bahlman) is far too self-righteous. Only Uncle Leo, a gentle-spirited soul given an empathetic performance by Mark Collins, has escaped the family sin of dogmatism — and the price is that his three children are completely apathetic. Anne Oberbroeckling is oddly moving, and often pretty funny, as Vera.
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The play is more interesting for the things it has to say about the way cultural and historical perceptions change with the passing of time than for its family dynamics. Emma can never really understand the circumstances that shaped her family — though in some ways she's still trapped by them — while they can never leave their ingrained beliefs behind long enough to move into the present. In this context, it strikes me as telling that whoever put together the study guide for the play actually felt the need to define McCarthyism. It's pretty scary that the senator whose lying demagoguery ruined so many lives should be forgotten while his voice still issues persistently from the throats of such Tea Party favorites as Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann and Ted Cruz.