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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Say you're grappling with big ideas about how leftist idealism from the 1960s has transformed in the new millennium. Say you noticed that in the middle of the aughts, when Bush-era economic flagrancy was at its peak, the world seemed to warp progressive thoughts into tools for greed. And now, say you're a playwright. How do you turn those ideas into theatre? Instead of presenting them like a classroom lecture, how do you make them sizzle?
Ask David Hay, whose dark comedy A Perfect Future opens tomorrow at The Cherry Lane Theatre. The show charts an explosive dinner party in 2005 hosted by a New York power couple---John and Natalie---who spent the sixties as college radicals. With their old friend Elliot and Mark, John's young colleague from his risk-management firm, they drink far too much wine and spill some terrible secrets about the people they've become.
All the characters are passionate about their values, and when they realize how deeply they disagree with each other, they vigorously defend their beliefs. This leads to provocative statements about Marx, capitalism, the state of the post-Boomer generation, and the presence of racism in the modern workplace.
On one level, those ideas are compelling by themselves. "The whole thing that drew me to the play was the idea that a capitalist businessman can turn Marx on his head and use him for capitalist market domination instead of social and economic freedom," says director Wilson Milam, who was Tony-nominated for helming Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore. "Where do the ideals go? Do they go away? And is that bad? Was it realistic in the first place? Hopefully, you go away thinking about all those questions."
Hay feels an emotional undercurrent in the debates. "One of the things that's elemental about the play is the position of ideas in a relationship and whether you can have a relationship with somebody whose fundamental ideas about the world are opposite from yours," he says. "My parents, in their polite fashion, were on opposite ends of the political spectrum. The idea that two people could be married for nearly sixty years and have diametrically opposed political ideas was something I found odd."
Underneath the specifics of post-sixties liberalism, the playwright also notes a universal conflict. "You could transpose the story to, say, two young Israeli kids who grew up pro-Palestinian, and now thirty years later, one of them is pro-Israeli," he says. "The paradigm could shift to a different situation."
Still, something human needs to connect those arguments. Hay's script includes saucy sexual revelations and an unsettling twist at the end of act one, and he credits Milam with nurturing other subtle elements: "When I was writing, I often got sidetracked by following the ideas instead of the people. Wilson has brought a sense of how the people actually interact and relate. Hopefully, the potential for that was there in the play, but it wasn't evidenced in some of the earlier drafts."
Milam has focused on teasing out the physical comedy in the play. It turns out, for instance, that there's gold in watching four adults drink all night.
"They open a lot of wine bottles, pour a lot of glasses of wine," the director says. "We've discovered the humor in that, about fresh glasses and not fresh glasses and losing your glass and how do you find your glass amongst thirty on stage. Those are bits of physical reality that are quite charming."
Those bits have drawn preview crowds closer to the play. Hay says, "It's really evident that the audience tracks [the wine]. If somebody's putting the fifth bottle of wine into a glass they've already used, then the audience knows.
He adds, "One thing that's interesting to me is the structure of jokes and how things play through. It's richer when you come back to it a second time."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor