The end is seriously fucking nigh

In which I squirm my way through great theater.

It’s October, which in addition to being the spookiest time of year (objectively speaking) is also an especially theater-heavy time for me. I see shows almost every night — sometimes five over the course of a weekend. It is exhilarating and completely exhausting, and I don’t get to cover nearly all the productions I would like to write about. With that in mind, I’ve decided to make quick hit reviews of shows a recurring feature of my newsletter. I’ll still post the occasional longer review, but in the interest of spreading the word about as much as I can, expect to see more of these blurbs during the height of theater season. 

Heroes of the Fourth Turning. I was anxious about the prospect of seeing a play about conservatives, not because I can’t handle seeing the depiction of ideas I find abhorrent, but because I’m not all that interested in a left-leaning interpretation of what conservatives look and sound like. (If you’re reading this, David Mamet, I’m not particularly interested in a right-leaning interpretation either, so don’t get any ideas.) It turns out I was being unfair: playwright Will Arbery has created a sharp, nuanced, and deeply felt exploration of Catholicism and conservative ideals, and how their adherents reconcile their principles with Donald Trump and the rise of the alt-right. There is an impressive authenticity to a fraught conversation; you can read Arbery’s artist’s statement for some insight into how his background and upbringing informed his perspective.

From the jarring gunshot that rings out in the first five minutes, Heroes of the Fourth Turning kept me on the edge of my seat. Even in its moments of comedy, the play made me deeply unsettled. It’s rare to see a work that’s so relentlessly engaging — even at over two hours, sans intermission — and also profoundly discomfiting. Very little actually happens over the course of those two hours: the plot, about four young conservatives reuniting in a backyard, is deliberately restrained. There aren’t the blow-up fights you might expect; even the most rigorous debate feels oddly polite, if not respectful. And yet, the dialogue is explosive. By the time the play reaches its dramatic climax, it doesn’t feel like it’s been building to that moment so much as that we’ve been there all along.

Buy tickets here.

Georgia Mertching Is Dead. There’s a real thrill to going into a play completely blind, particularly when you get to discover that it hits all of your interests perfectly. Georgia Mertching Is Dead caught me off-guard with its sexual frankness, focus on friendships between women, and morbid sense of humor. I fell in love. It’s a story about a road trip and a funeral and addiction, and it’s really fucking funny. I realize that I’m talking about it after saying how much pleasure I got out of knowing nothing, but I just… really want you to see this show before it ends its too-short run on Oct. 27. There is something so special about this gem of a production.

Playwright Catya McMullen has written some of the most biting dialogue I’ve seen onstage in ages, but there’s also a real pathos to her exploration of toxic relationships and the endless struggle of becoming an adult. (While I’m glad I didn’t know anything about Georgia Mertching Is Dead ahead of time, I would appreciate a content warning before seeing any plays that touch on trying to be a person in your early thirties. Thanks in advance!) It helps that the cast is exceptional: Layla Khoshnoudi, Diana Oh, Claire Siebers make their characters, and the friendship between them, feel real and lived in. Here is where I acknowledge that I have known Diana for over 20 years — we went to middle school and high school together — but personal bias aside, my friends are very talented.

Buy tickets here.

Everyone Is Dying and So Am I. While we’re on the subject of talented friends, I can’t write about Everyone Is Dying and So Am I, which I saw during its two-night run as part of the United Solo Theatre Festival, without acknowledging that writer and star Michael John Ciszewski is one of my dearest friends. You can take my thoughts with a grain of salt, if you wish, but when have I ever led you astray? I wanted to write about this play not out of loyalty, but because it was a moving and thoughtful excavation of mortality and loss. It also challenged my perception of solo theater, which I’ll admit I often dismiss as indulgent. And it’s true that this is a personal piece rife with self-exploration, but it has larger aims that ended up reinforcing my belief that sharing our own anxiety, grief, and trauma can have a profound impact beyond our own healing.

I’m a little obsessed with the title Everyone Is Dying and So Am I, which the audience is invited to repeat throughout the show. I hate being asked to do anything when I’m seeing a play (recall that audience participation is one of my greatest fears), but the longer I sat there, the more eager I was to join in the invocation. There’s a powerful release to the acceptance of that reality, which brought me back to the unapologetic morbidity of Georgia Mertching Is Dead and the apocalyptic tone of Heroes of the Fourth Turning. Seeing Michael wrestle with hypochondria and panic attacks was an uncomfortable albeit relatable experience, but I found the acknowledgment of an unavoidable endpoint to be oddly comforting. However we get there, the relinquishing of control is ultimately something to celebrate.

Other shows I’ve seen and recommend: Freestyle Love Supreme (buy tickets here), The Great Society (buy tickets here), Little Shop of Horrors (buy tickets here).

Photo by Joan Marcus.