After the Revolution. Playwright Amy Herzog enters a very specific world in After the Revolution: the passionate, close-knit, hyper-idealistic world of Jewish Communism in New York City during the early decades of the twentieth century. For these activists, Soviet Russia was a model. But when Khrushchev denounced Stalin during the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, American Communists were forced to re-evaluate. Some renounced Marxism, some continued to believe in its basic tenets but left the party, and others became apologists for Stalin. Among these deniers — or semi-deniers — are members of the Joseph family in Herzog's play. The year is 1999. Grandfather Joe Joseph, now deceased, 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. His granddaughter Emma has inherited his 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 Joe was in fact a spy for the Soviets during World War II, her entire world is shattered. She cuts off communication with her father, Ben, because he hadn't told her, argues with Miguel, her lover and co-worker, and contemplates ditching the fund. Helpless, Ben tries again and again to reach out to Emma. Herzog has said that she sees her work 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. 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. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 19, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org. Reviewed September 19.
Death of a Salesman. Despite a dream cast at the Denver Center, Death of a Salesman seems like a terribly overrated play. Start with the iconic opening image of a weary Willy Loman coming home weighed down by his heavy traveling cases: He's a symbol rather than a specific human being, and we're never told exactly what he sells. The vagueness is deliberate, because Arthur Miller was looking to communicate overarching truths in this play and create a lofty commentary on the human condition in mid-twentieth-century America, when marketing and salesmanship were beginning to secure their death grip on the culture, and everything, including human beings, was becoming a commodity. But the reach for some kind of profound truth results in a murky plot and a lot of equally murky language. Willy Loman isn't the traditional tragic hero — wise, strong or powerful and ultimately brought down by a single flaw. Poor Willy is nothing but flaws — so many that it's hard to figure out exactly what's wrong with him. He bullies and complains, boasts and apologizes, flies into rages and suddenly crumples. He's clearly delusional and perhaps succumbing to dementia. Nor is he really brought to his knees by a corrupt society and the march of progress. His mortgage is almost paid off, he's offered a job by a friend which he unhesitatingly turns down. Miller's impulse was to elevate and celebrate the lives of ordinary people, but the Lomans aren't ordinary; they're toxic. Willy and Linda have wrecked their two sons, over-favoring Biff and neglecting Happy. You'd like to feel sympathy for these nurturance-starved, over-aged boys, but you can't, because they're as unself-aware and awash in self-pity as their parents. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 20, Space Theatre. Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org. Reviewed October 10.
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Seminar. Anyone who has ever attended a writers' workshop will recognize the characters in Theresa Rebeck's Seminar, and also the dynamics among them. There's Douglas, the apparently confident son of a somewhat well-known writer, who's a few steps ahead of the other students in terms of his literary career: He has an agent and a story under consideration at the New Yorker. The others are Kate, a poor little rich girl struggling to find her way and her voice as a writer; Izzy, the exotic beauty whose work will be praised and whose career will advance no matter what her level of talent; and the driven, neurotic and over-emotional Martin. The teacher, Leonard, is a bitter old coot whose own writing career came to a halt for reasons we'll eventually learn, and who now works as an editor and leads expensive seminars for the apparent sole purpose of tormenting students. His criticisms are lazy — he barely bothers to read what's in front of him — and viciously ego-destroying. This play isn't deep; none of these characters is fully fleshed out, and Rebeck doesn't have any particularly penetrating things to say about writing. But there's a lot of smart, caustic humor, and at a lively ninety minutes, Seminar makes for a fast and very entertaining evening. Presented by Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through October 20. Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 888-512-7469, boulderensembletheatre.org. Reviewed October 10.