In the Wake
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 30, 2010
In the Wake, the very disappointing new play by Lisa Kron at the Public Theater, aggravated me enormously. It is, essentially, the story of a very spoiled, immature, and selfish young woman who is in a long-term (and apparently very happy) relationship with a kind and generous man, and what happens when she falls in love with a charismatic woman whom she knew in college. (What happens is, predictably, that she messes up all three people's lives—perhaps most intractably her own.)
What's annoying about this is not that Kron's plotting is fairly unconvincing (though it is: do we really know a lot of people who would co-exist in the relationship I just described for nearly two years, as these characters do?); nor that her play's protagonist is such a whiny egoist, activist predilections notwithstanding. No, what's annoying is that In the Wake is being billed as important political theatre. The press release says this is "a searing new play that illuminates assumptions that lie at the heart of the American character" and the Public's artistic director Oskar Eustis trumpets, in a note in the program, that the play's "unique characters[']...very individuality allow them to be spokespeople for the American psyche." He continues, "it captures something essential about a country that could elect George W. Bush—twice."
Sorry, but this is simply not the case. Lip service is played to the rotten decade we've just lived through via intermittent projections of key moments (from TV news reports) such as the disputed 2000 election, the beginning of the war in Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina. And yes, Ellen, In the Wake's protagonist, is a fervent news hound and committed liberal involved in a number of vaguely defined causes (Amnesty International and voting drives in Ohio are mentioned). And yes, Ellen's friend Judy has a long monologue at the climactic moment of the play when she explains why she never votes. (Kron has not seen fit to give Ellen or any other character an equally eloquent rebuttal, which feels downright irresponsible to me.)
But the play is resolutely about Ellen trying to have everything in her world, and for a while actually succeeding at doing so, and I don't have any idea which assumptions in the American character that illuminates (we're a country of opinionated souls who make choices all the time), nor can I even hazard a guess as to which part of the American psyche Ellen is speaking for (spoiled bisexual women with no clear source of income and no clear sense of responsibility seem to be a fairly tiny minority in this great country of ours). Kron and her presenters might have been far better served by trusting the public to want to see the play she actually wrote, rather than pretending that it's a significant depiction of the American polity in 2010.
Now, forgetting the pretense of importance, In the Wake still feels like second-rate TV fodder to me—half movie-of-the-week and half sitcom as it presents characters who don't feel internally consistent and don't do things that make much sense. All are reasonably well performed under Leigh Silverman's direction, by the way, with particular standouts being Michael Chernus as Danny, Ellen's boyfriend and the only male presence in the play, and the always marvelous Deirdre O'Connell as cynical Judy, a woman who has spent her life working in refugee camps and aid centers around the world (though she is unable to figure out how to provide lasting help to her own niece).
I was excited about the prospect of seeing In the Wake because I thought it would be refreshing to see the current state of the union hashed out by characters whose voices aren't dominant in our culture (women, lesbians, foreign aid workers). So when I realized how much Kron has missed the mark with her play I was very disturbed. Hopefully other writers will give us more valid and pertinent explorations of our national character than this one.