As We Speak
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
November 7, 2008
Lock your doors America! The Fascists are coming and they don't knock. One thing that rings resoundingly true in John Patrick Bray's As We Speak (inspired by Sinclair Lewis's chilling 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here) is that it could happen here. The script plays on our fears and paranoia, but for the most part Bray paints his story in very broad strokes and the production suffers from the glossing-over of issues that need intricate dabs of detail.
Set in contemporary times, the play not only tells the story of the rise of militaristic fascism in this country but it simultaneously shows us the effects of that on a moderately liberal couple. Noreen is writing her thesis on the Katrina debacle in New Orleans. Her husband Travis is a chef and is opening a Cajun/New England fusion restaurant. An evangelist named Harrison appears on a giant screen spouting his rhetoric of paranoia, security, and racism. We quickly realize that their friend Chad is buying into every word and will be the cause of their problems.
The main issue being thrust into the minds of the people is immigration reform. The flood of immigrants is causing a strain on our economy and our health care and education systems. Sounds familiar doesn't it? A man we never meet, Kip Shaw, wins the Presidential election by a landslide with the support of Harrison and his political base. From that point on, things begin to degrade. An unsanctioned border patrol (dressed in Mussolini brown shirts) called the Minuteman (based on the current militia of the same name) gains more and more power until they become a humongous military force sanctioned by the new government. Travis is beaten and dragged from his home, Chad's Latina wife Jennifer is also beaten, and Noreen is left searching for her husband while she circulates anti-government propaganda.
Bray's concept is to present the story of the rise of the fascists using mostly sound bites from the media. I enjoyed that aspect of the play because, given the information society we live in today, it strikes me as very real. Much of his story is very chilling and powerful in that I could see this happening here so easily. However, Bray attempts to use ordinary people like Noreen and Chad to delve a little deeper into what people are actually thinking about the direction the country is moving, but they tend to skim over the issues and their arguments become repetitive. Just one example is when they are arguing that a third party vote is like voting for the opposition—but nobody brings up why even saying that is the real problem. Also, Bray portrays conservatives as bad and the liberals as good but if fascists actually took over, conservatives and liberals would both be swayed by the rhetoric and fascists would be greeted by fanfare and waving flags. Since Bray splits the action of the play between the media sound bites and the ordinary people, the outcome is that the rise of fascism feels sudden and the relationships among the people are not developed enough for me to care about what happens to them.
Director Tom Berger lends the production a stark vision of the future and his movement is well thought out and very stylized at times. There are some things that don't make sense, such as the fact that Chad never knocks or seems hindered at all by a door when he enters Noreen and Travis's apartment. Also, the media sound bites are done on a platform upstage with the camera far below the actors, causing them to have to look down, and they stand on the same sight line as the screen right behind them, making the use of this large screen less effective. The lighting (Tim Kaufman) for the many of the media scenes is way too low and doesn't look like TV lighting at all. However projection designer David Bengali does arrange the segments very well.
The cast is not as strong as it could be. There are, however, some who shine brighter. Michelle Rabbani as Jennifer plays the unbreakable spirit very well and Michael Bertolini as Harrison is very convincing in his self-righteousness. Rajesh Bose as one of the President's spokesman, however, really convinced me that he honestly believed that everything he was doing for his country was the right and just thing.
I had higher expectations for this show considering that it is based on such great source material. Still, the basic message that this could happen here comes across loud and clear. Maybe that's all we need to hear.