The generation gap is old news in the theatre, dating back at least to Euripides and Shakespeare, but the way it is playing out right now in real life is bitter, chilling and toxic. Just considerWhat You Are, a stern new play by JC Lee, commissioned by and now premiering at the Old Globe Theatre.
The very title is a scatter-shot indictment suggesting an assumed truth that everybody will fit snugly into some stereotype, generally inferior (and usually irritating) to one’s own, with age only the most obvious border. There’s also racism, politics, economics, violence, use of natural resources and all the coded stuff coating class, tribalism, patriotism, sex, religion and even diet. Something for every market.
In rural Nevada, a soulless techie start-up corporation devising algorithms to trap mass markets has occupied a failed factory space and skimmed the local surplus of laid-off workers for customers and contractors. As conditions in town deteriorate, older residents pine for a gentler past while kids plot their escape.
An incident, born of frustration and fed by desperation, generates an official crisis, a matter for the courts. That showdown is avoided by a nasty series of complicated maneuvers which levels out the damage but enacts a price that suggests little of use has been learned. Not much rage is left vague as Lee slashes his way through this story of no cathartic heroes to this goal of no constructive victories.
As the bile boils, Lee mixes a sauce of cynical media technology all too familiar these days. The first exchange of dialogue features failed humor about phone passwords and “naked selfies.” Every character seems burdened with some load of online input, including acrid radio commentary urging us vs. them and sinister websites goading individuals to heroic action. Fumbles with typing commands are seen as signs of hopeless imbecility and the winning twist may already be invalidated by some system fix.
I wish I could offer some help to these people. Somehow, the suggestion of the egghead superstar that, “…we have to confront what people really are and build systems to protect them from themselves” isn’t really it. And I doubt any of them would find comfort in the idea that all these matters that seem so urgent are just eternal concerns than travel in cycles and revisit regularly, like comets.
Arthur Miller did a good job with similar concerns in his Death of a Salesman. The deceased Willy Loman, a pathetic failure is so many ways, nevertheless kept trying. And, for that, “Attention must be paid.”
The Globe production is a solemn, measured, almost ceremonial display of wounds not fatal but probably crippling, with a decent veneer of compassion but no sentimental urgency. Though Lee and his director, Patricia McGregor, stop just short of shrugging at the hopeless holes in these lives, McGregor discourages extremes and successfully steers a course of exhausted exasperation that suggests those Beckett clowns waiting for Godot.
The team’s most memorable moment comes in a surge at the final curtain. Anton Chekhov famously decreed that a loaded gun included in the stage properties must be fired, or the author could be accused of teasing the audience. But that was over a century ago, when indecision was less useful in the theatre. McGregor and Lee understand the concept and have proceed appropriately.
Jonathan Walker finds pathos in the failing father, and Mike Sears offers more defiance as a fellow straggler. Omoze Idehenre uses the steadfastness of the wife to boost whatever decency and compassion can be wrung from the story. The younger generation is a cold dose of self-interest, with Jasmin Savoy Brown set to seethe at insinuation and insult alike while Adrian Anchondo turns purple with repressed contempt and scorn.
Rachel Myers offers sketchy props as a setting, Elisa Benzoni’s wardrobe is appropriate and the lighting in the Globe’s White arena is by Sherrice Mojgani.
This is a show worth pondering And, as one vote from an increasingly invalid constituency, I will hope to see more through the eyes of JC Lee.
(Continues in the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre at the Old Globe at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through June 30, 2019.)