‘A Bright Room Called Day’ at The Public, Tony Kushner’s Haunting Spectres Thread Through Hitler’s Berlin, Reagan’s 1980s and Trumpism
Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day directed by Oskar Eustis, currently at The Public until 15 December (unless it receives another extension which it should) reflects upon humanity confronting evil that on a number of levels appears unstoppable and irrevocable. Throughout the main action and play within a play, Kushner makes clear that those who recognize evil’s force and preeminence, often are too afraid to lay down their lives to fight, though fighting is the action needed to stop wickedness in political, social and economic institutions not constrained by the rule of law.
The play uses at is jumping off point political and social issues undermining the Weimar Republic in Berlin. The setting encompasses events one year prior to the “Eve of Destruction,” when Hindenburg acceded to Hitler’s government take-over after which Hitler evicted parliamentary, constitutional democracy from the minds, hearts and souls of the German people. Kushner examines the parallels of that time with our culture during Reaganism and Trumpism.
The questions he raises are pointed. Some might argue that from the 1980s to now, the decline in our democratic processes and the public’s response appear similar to the public’s response to precursor events in Germany 1933. A Bright Room Called Day relates Berlin, Germany 1933 to 1985 Reaganism devolving to the time of Trump. These three settings represent a turning point when the crisis of the period might have shifted in another direction if good citizens acted differently, affirming the adage, “evil flourishes when good men and women do nothing.” In this play Kushner examines the “What if?” Couldn’t citizens have halted the terrifying dissolution of democracy? Couldn’t they have liquidated Hitler’s fascist dictatorship before he even attempted to manifest his warped vision of the Third Reich’s reign for 1000 years?
The community of individuals we meet at the outset of the play who pop in and out of Agnes Eggling’s (Nikki M. James) lovely apartment are members of the political, liberal left, a combination of artists and activists who are/were at one point communists, socialists, progressives and union activists, one of whom is a homosexual (played by the exquisite, always present Michael Urie). All of these will be consigned to Hitler’s enemies’ list if they remain in Berlin. If captured, they will be deported as state enemies and undesirables and murdered when Hitler constructs and augments his network of slave labor and extermination camps to implement his “Final Solution.”
Kushner’s work which was excoriated when it first premiered in the 1980s has been given an uplift with an additional character, and dialogue tweaking to reference the current siege of Trumpism on our democracy. Kushner posits that our times manifest “inklings” similar to those employed by fascists and Reagan’s corrupt conservatives who sent the nation on a downhill slide which Trump appears to be pitching over the edge into oblivion unless we do something. By drawing comparisons, we are forced to reflect upon the upheaval in our democratic institutions as the political, economic and social divisiveness spurred by Trumpism augments.
Kushner interjects his own commentary as a playwright and interrupts the action during which he actively engages his audience as a silent character whose consciousness he manipulates. Through identification with the people and events in Germany, we, like they, become like the frog that is placed in a pot of cold water. As the heat is turned up to the boiling point, if the frog is alert, he can escape before boiling to death. But he must realize immediately what is happening, so he will not be too lamed to escape. By degrees the audience realizes that they are in a crucible like Kushner’s characters under which a fiery truth blazes. To that truth Kushner posits one must recognize it, or its heat and pressure will pitch one into a death-state of paralysis like Agnes’.
The play’s new character is Xillah. Xillah represents Kushner’s perspectives as a citizen playwright who comments on his play and the policies of Reaganism and Trumpism. Playwright Xillah engages with Zillah his indefinable character whom he’s written into the 1980s. Zillah complains to Xillah about her function in the play. She importunes him for a viable role and purpose. She wishes to step beyond ranting about the emotional paralysis of character Agnes. Watching Agnes frustrates Zillah, for Agnes does little but quiver in fear at the ever-worsening events in Berlin. It is her fears which manifest nightmare presences (Die Älte-the Old One, in a wonderful portrayal by Estelle Parsons) who haunt her and drive her into soul paralysis which will lead to her death under Hitler’s regime.
Xillah, a character in the play framing the Berlin events is portrayed with humorous vitality by Jonathan Hadary. His character criticizes the activities by the cults of Reagan and Trump. He sardonically characterizes Reagan’s presidency and Trump’s “monolithic” personage with abandon in a stream of hysterical epithets that are right-on. Both Xillah and Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry is Hadary’s counterpart in a feeling portrayal) comment on the dynamic of the Berlin characters which Xillah (as Kushner) has created. They watch as Agnes, Paulinka (the superb Grace Gummer) Baz ( Michael Urie) Husz (Michael Esper) Gotchling (Linda Emond) and comrades Rosa Malek (Nadine Malouf) and Emil Traum (Max Woertendyke) grow morose and desperate, experiencing the dissolution of the German Republic into fascism. They palpably encounter the manifested evil of the time in the form of Gottfried Swetts (Mark Margolis humorously intrigues in his portrayal). He is the Devil, whose darkness overtakes Germany as Hitler ushers himself into the government and eradicates any goodness that went before.
Kushner’s characters argue about communism, socialism, democratic socialism and the state of affairs. Their discussions fuel their waning activism and encourage impassivity with a few exceptions, for example, Gotchling (Linda Emond) who is continually putting up posters which are torn down continually. We empathize with the Berliners as they react to the brutalities and street fighting, Hindenberg’s ending the government and the Reichstag fire which Hitler blamed on the communists to ban the party, arrest the leaders (his enemies) and consolidate his power base.
The characters react emotionally with disgust and outrage but their impulses to act are largely stymied by fear. They will not move beyond marches and protests that the Brown Shirts help to render bloody and ineffective. And when back room deals are made to put Hitler in power, they become powerless. Like many they appear to believe the propaganda rallies that show support for Hitler, though initially these are largely staged until the rallies gain in momentum and many join Hitler’s party.
The historical events are chronicled with vitality. The characters reveal poignant moments expressing the mood and tenor of the like-minded populace. Baz relates a story of a man’s suicide and his imagined wish to take one of the oranges, he, Baz, has purchased and give it to the dead man as a comfort. Of course, Baz never gives him the orange, but he imagines having done it, ironically comforting himself as the man is beyond being comforted. For Baz it is a horror seeing the dead man’s body pooling blood around it. Baz identifies the cause of the man’s suicide as the despair and immobility to stop the terrible events in Berlin. The suicide rocks Baz to the core. We align the man’s suicide with Baz’s suicide attempt which he stops himself from committing when instead, he has a sexual encounter. Baz’s choice is ironic and the impact of the suicide he witnessed in the streets is nullified by sexual distraction. As Baz, Urie delivers another incredible story later on which sets one reeling. Again, when Baz could take a stand, he chooses not to. Throughout, Urie’s performance is spot on amazing.
In the “intervening” frame play, Zillah attempts to persuade Xillah to write her with character powers that transcend time and space and go back to the past to warn Agnes of the danger of embracing fear and doing nothing. Zillah is upset that Agnes is so overcome, she is zombie-like. One of the humorous parallels is that Xillah, too, is at an impasse (like Agnes) only it is about the direction of this play and how to make it more vital so that it will have a resounding impact on the audience and get them to act. But he is filled with doubts about the function of plays. Also, he fears tampering with what he has already written. Indeed, he could make his play into a worse failure. His quandary is humorous.
Kushner, the frame (the present and 1980s) around which houses his Berlin character dynamic has Xillah remind Zillah of a number of important details, in addition to the chronological events of Hitler’s takeover. As Xillah parallels the then with the now, he affirms that friends living against the backdrop of Trumpism suggested he revisit The Bright Room Called Day because it is prescient and current. Xillah wrangles how best to show the similarities and complains that the characterization of Zillah doesn’t work. However, the character very much integrates the parallels. She criticizes inaction when a nation’s political/social structure disintegrates because the populace becomes overwhelmed and doesn’t act, becoming paralyzed as Agnes is paralyzed. The question remains: how does one move out of paralysis and take effective action which will change things for the better?
The threads of alignment that Kushner makes with Germany that mirror our present are thematically chilling. Xillah reminds Zillah that the Weimar Republic had a constitution like the U.S. but their constitution didn’t save them against Hitler who abolished it. With the constitution gone, Hitler and his underlings and judiciary created laws to further Hitler’s occult mythic vision (the Master Race). And with his own race laws, he legalized the genocide of millions. Of course, Kushner highlights the turning point when death and destruction could have been prevented during the events of 1932-33. But those who saw, like Agnes and her friends, chose to do nothing. Eventually, like the frog slow boiled in the pot, the only thing they can do is escape. If they, as Agnes did, stay, they will be killed or swallowed up like Paulinka to join Hitler’s Third Reich “support group” of murderous maniacal, psychotic, evil accomplices. A different type of death, certainly more horrific and self-recriminating.
Xillah muses about changing the play and warns Zillah that Agnes can’t hear her: she is dead as the past is dead. Zillah continues to beg Xillah. The dialogue that Kushner has written between them is humorous and reminiscent of the “Theater of the Absurd” genre and Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, where the playwrights tweak dramatic conventions. This is done to expand audience consciousness. Such creative license demands being available to “thinking outside of the box.” It also leads to the audience having to follow a play’s absurdities which can be as confounding as the illogical, dire thrusts of fascism, Reaganism, Trumpism.
The absurdist feeling becomes that one has been caught up watching oneself as a part of the larger picture which one deludes themselves into believing they can control. In fact the “author” of our lives is not one we’ve necessarily chosen or know. At least Zillah knows her progenitor and argues with him and finally convinces Xillah to lift space/time constraints so that Agnes hears and speaks to her.
This section gives rise to a number of themes in this work that is dense with brilliance. Before Zillah connects with Agnes, we note that Agnes’s spirit atrophies and dies because her fear incapacitates her. Even if Zillah could break through the time barrier and move from the 1980s to 1933, Agnes’s routine of embracing fear and inaction has warped and destroyed any life in her. Life is movement, action, vitality. Doing something, anything (even escaping) would be better than just withering away. The irony of the play is the melding of the frame play into the Berlin story by Kushner/Xillah. He finally allows Zillah to warn Agnes to leave because she is doomed. Though it is not mentioned, we understand that those who did leave Germany early on did manage to save themselves while millions were swept up in genocide and Hitler’s war machine.
Agnes’ reply to Zillah is not what we expect. It is mind-numbing, a warning to Zillah and us about our own time. It has the effect of a final incredible bomb blast that whimpers and fades. The full-on irony is as Agnes exhorts her/us, we hear, but it doesn’t register, it doesn’t matter. Thematically, Kushner suggests that we are plagued by the same inabilities, insufficiencies and cowardice that Husz ranted about in an earlier magnificent scene. Time inevitably doesn’t matter as we are like Agnes. Paralyzed, immobilized by discussion doing little to save ourselves. We must act! But how? To do what? And so it goes.
Kushner’s play should be revisted and it is a credit to The Public and Oskar Eustis for bringing it back in this unsettling, frustrating iteration. The parallels with each time period, whether we deign to acknowledge them or not, are striking. The threads which indict us about our alienation and powerlessness are spectres which should prick us to the marrow of our bones.
Indeed, in our time as we watch the separation of powers (executive, legislative, judiciary) illegally devoured by the Trumpist Party with the DOJ stomping down its own institution (i.e. the Inspector General’s Report exonerating FBI officials whom the WH has slandered and insulted) and mischaracterizing the Mueller Report, such “above the law conduct” to loyally support the WH is frightening and dangerous. Additionally, in our time, we note how the Trumpist Party encourages law breaking of fired officials (lawyers and others) to defy congressional subpoenas tantamount to obstruction of justice. And currently, high ranking members of the Trumpist Party in the House of Representatives refuse to listen to non partisan congressional testimony which implicates the White House in potential bribery of a foreign leader, withholding appropriate congressional military aid in exchange for a political smear of the White House’s opponent. In other words, they refuse to uphold their constitutional oath of office and do their job, instead uplifting the “dear” leader’s loyalty pledge to support him in his criminality.
These are high crimes and misdemeanors to add to a long list of acts which we need whistleblowers to come out and speak about: Trumpist bribery of foreign leaders, quid pro quos, his acting above the law, his incurring human rights violations, overthrowing military law, and Trump’s blatant importuning of foreign nations and adversaries to help him overthrow our election processes with smear campaigns against his opponents, the indefensible practice he used to win the 2016 election.
Such lawless behavior in an executive that easily vitiates the separation of powers, and bullies, insults and retaliates against anyone who would attempt to point out his law violations recalls behaviors of fledgling dictatorships. Such dictatorships grow. They make laws into what are solely “good” for the dictator/autocrat as they obviate what is good for the rest of the body politic. And if one counters with opposition? That autocrat will bully, intimidate, censure, retaliate and eventually when no one stops them, kill or destroy any opponents using what it can get away with, first character assassination, then jail, then well placed convenient suicides (check the google article about Deustche Bank’s suicides) then murder.
One may argue that Kushner’s alignment of the present U.S. “leadership” with Germany’s situation in 1932-33 is extreme and overblown. Really? And indeed, if the play “doesn’t work,” are the themes and presentments just too horrible to contemplate? Are we, like Agnes, too overcome, too PTSDed by the WH’s horrific acts to consider that we have already lost our constitution and democracy to an overweening, unlawful executive branch whose party refuses to adhere to constitutional checks and balances?
Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day raises so many parallels, similar threads and questions, that it should be seen. It should be seen not only for the superb performances, but for the humor, for the pith, the juicy pulp of the orange that is being offered as a comfort. And it should be seen as the bright bit of light in the sky before the darkness closes in and we can no longer see clearly fact from fiction. While there is that bit of light, we must discern conflicting alternative narratives from the propaganda that would occlude our minds, souls and hearts and propel us away from human decency and love for each other as citizens of a nation worthy of its ideals.
Kudos to David Rockwell (scenic design) Susan Hilferty and Sarita Fellows (co-costume design) John Torres (lighting design) BRay Poor (sound design) Lucy Mackinnon (projection design) Tom Watson (hair, wig, makeup design) Thomas Shall (fight director). A Bright Room Called Day runs with one intermission at The Public Theater until 15 of December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Corruption, bribery, pay offs siphoning off citizens’ taxes and lifeblood in a small town? What could be more symbolically representative of politics, whether such machinations take place in Russia or the United States today? In good times, officials steal roundly and with less accountability because citizens are economically well placed to go about their lives. In harsh economic times the sub rosa avarice of bureaucrats who serve themselves first and serve the public never, always raises a hue and cry. When the little people are squeezed, they pressure their overlords to uphold the “sanctity of their positions.” Usually, the miscreants don’t and must be brought to heel. And sometimes there is even justice.
For playwright Nikolai Gogol, such a scenario, laden with hypocrisy and condemnation was a golden treasure trove of comedy. He has proven this with Revizor adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher into The Government Inspector, currently enjoying an extended run at New World Stages.
What a marvelous production this is. It is relevant to our political times which encapsulate the play’s themes. This satire of small town government officials and their general incompetence and corrupt misapplication of their mission and public service is a relief and respite from disheartening nightly news. For that alone, it is a must-see. Apart from that, this production is a must-see because it is just terrific.
For Jeffrey Hatcher who was commissioned to adapt Gogol’s Revizor into a version which would be performed for the 2008 Guthrie season, it was a “kick.” He clarifies that it was an election year. The barnyard of democrats and republicans was in full cacophonic frenzy. Hatcher’s enjoyment is evident in this adroit adaptation. Indeed, he steps up Gogol’s humorous scenario of malevolent politicians who have the tables turned on them, as they conspire to cover-up their cronyism, graft and malfeasance.
Hatcher delivers the best of Gogol and allows the Russian playwright’s genius to shine. With finely tuned direction (Jesse Berger) and exceptional ensemble work, The Government Inspector is madcap, zany and high comedic exhilaration.. Hatcher nimbly tweaks the playwright’s work just enough to enhance the hysteria in the comedy, acute jokes and incredible witticisms. His writing makes this production so completely sumptuous, you will want to feed on it again and catch a second time the artful ironies and slick phrases that ring with truth and reality at every laugh riot of a turn.
How satisfying it is to see the petty, self-dealing bureaucrats hoisted on their own greedy petard when they are duped by one of their own, who is even more mercenary than they. This is a normally improbable justice that we are privy to see, as it is unwittingly launched by error. When the government officials receive their own comeuppance, we are assured that the lofty are most greatly impugned and punished by their own shame, humiliation and self-deception. At this time in our social and political history, we are thrilled to laugh riotously at the characters’ machinations and their unhappy conclusions which remind us that “what goes around comes around.” What a pleasure!
The performances are the jewels that provide the glitter and the piquant vibrancy of the production. Without this ensemble, the jokes would scintillate but not with the power to strike as hard and send us as furiously as they do into the comic heavenlies.
In the first scene, we are introduced to the conflict and meet the dastardly mayor (Michael McGrath is wonderfully on point with every hysterical line, every turn of phrase) and his legion of nefarious officials, the illuminating and funny Tom Alan Robbins, William Youmans, Stephen Derosa, James Rana, Luis Moreno. Hatcher/Gogol pull back the veil as the politicians chatter and conspire and we are allowed to see where they have buried all the financial duplicities and discover who is taking what and how the mandate and mission of the judge, the principal, the hospital and law enforcement have been mismanaged to a preposterous degree. (It’s kind of like appointing an EPA director who will dismantle all of the environmental regulations to fund anti-green corporations.)
As for privacy concerns? All the town gossip, all of the secrecies and personal intimacies and weaknesses are explored and savored for broadcast by The Postmaster (the unforgettable Arnie Burton) who enthusiastically reads every line in each letter, sharing the juiciest and most damning information with his cronies for entertainment. Burton’s portrayal of the Postmaster is moment to moment LMAO; the comedy comes out of the personality of the character which makes his performance absolutely sublime. In this town there is no detail which is not known or kept quiet that Arnie’s Postmaster doesn’t blabber with gusto. He certainly is a tool of the corrupt political machine; he helps it keep abreast of its enemies to forestall any dangers to its power structure.
At the meeting of these wicked corrupt, they discuss their grave problem which is a threat to their livelihood and career positions. An investigator has come to the town in disguise to explore the level of malfeasance. They fear that he will hold them to account. All the officials and even two local landowners (the funny Ben Mehl and Ryan Garbayo) must work together, discover the hidden identity of this “spy” and turn him over to their side with bribes and payoffs. It is an intrigue that holds danger for the officials and promise for the little people who we don’t really see as we are in thick with the conspirators, a completely enjoyable and refreshing sardonic view.
What has been a boisterous and satiric introduction is jettisoned into a hyperbole of hilarity in the next scene where we meet a lowly civil servant, the ineffectual would-be suicide Hlestakov (the unforgettable and prodigiously talented Michael Urie) and his clever servant Osip (the versatile Arnie Burton). Hlestakov can’t quite “do the job” with a pistol to free himself of this unrequitable earthly plane, his gambling debts and the ignominy of a meager, zero-of-a-life, which he has badly used.
Because Hlestakov is incompetent at suicide, we have an hour and one-half of side-splitting laughter. Urie fashions comical uproariousness by using all the acting tools of his instrument. He flawlessly surfs the cresting waves of farcical action which he has helped to inflate. He is rather like a fine composer assisted by the incredible accompaniment of the ensemble, who spin their superbly tuned acting instruments into a wild symphony of raucous delight.
In this production Urie has stretched his talents to new heights. He is reminiscent of some of the comic greats; select any one of them in film, television or theater. He distills the substance of his lines then infuses them with the character of Hlestakov filtered through and around himself so that the civil servant who dupes the corrupted officials, and he, Michael Urie, are indivisible. Not only does Urie have seamless timing, he anticipates the power of pauses which he capitalizes on with grace, fluidity and an uncanny communication with the watchful, listening audience. Very simply, he captures Hlestakov’s being and rounds it out with Chaplinesque force and will.
As grand accompaniments, Mary Lou Rosato (various roles), Kelly Hutchinson (various roles), Mary Testa (the mayor’s wife) and Talene Monahon (the mayor’s daughter) are divine comedians. Without them the production would fly at a lower pitch. They are integral to the revelation of pretense behind the mayor, who is a wanna-be aspiring to nobility but must wallow in the mud of his position as a small-town functionary. And they (Testa, Monahon) provide the grist upon which Urie’s Hlestakov bakes the fabulous bread we devour to nurture our souls with exuberance and glee.
Indeed, all of the servant portrayals, each one more clever and shrewd than their masters/mistresses, are exceptionally delineated as characters and specifically portrayed by the actors. If one considers that in less than one hundred years what they are to “inherit” after the Revolution, there are no insignificant characters here, but they are the most prescient in biding their time waiting, in due season to dispatch here and there the fools they serve.
The dynamic arc of the play’s development is expertly unfolded so that by the conclusion, we have feasted and are sated. We recognize how thrilling it is to take our part in this rollicking spectacle which is perfectly congenial in its staging, set design, lighting, costuming and the thematic symbolism of its physical, emotional and intellectual levels. This seemingly effortless and easy production took loving care, sagacity and genius to effect the terror of its satire, the bounty of its humor, the innovation of its celebrated cast. Kudos to Jesse Berger who magnificently brought this together and who had the quick-witted spirit and grace to understand how to let it “all hang out,” using the structure of these artists’ inner freedom to live within the boundaries of Gogol’s classic.
If you don’t see this production you will have missed something truly wonderful and riotous. If you do see it, expect the audience to break into laughter and applause frequently because the infection of joy is abundant and bounces liberally between audience and cast. The two hours with one intermission race by.
A long time ago in a world far away there lived a thirty-something named Eric who, on a Sunday evening, placed an online ad for a roommate to share his two-bedroom Soho apartment in Manhattan. The following day, the world shifted off its axis and Eric never would be the same again. Nor would his former roommate, nor his former lover Will, nor any New Yorker, for that matter. From September 11, 2001, onward, there would be no turning back for any of us. In the days following, though Eric received calls on his answering machine from young men who wanted to come down immediately and see his apartment, they would have to wait.
Unlike a number of films about September 11, 2001, chronicling the tragedy, sorrow and heroism of that day’s events, WTC View written, directed and produced by Brian Sloan and starring Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Buyer and Cellar, What’s Your Emergency-director ), is about the days that follow September 11, revealing an exclusive portrait of how one individual tries to get through his personal difficulties while living in a devastated and traumatized Manhattan as the full impact of the towers’ collapse echoed and still echoes to this day. In the film’s opening, Brian Sloan cleverly slides shots with a voice over of news about the event in a crawl with the date of days passing until Eric (Michael Urie in an exceptionally acted and beautifully nuanced portrayal), is allowed back into the area; he was staying with a friend in Brooklyn.
The still shots, voice over, and crawl which Sloan uses as a bridge for time passing and transition to the various segments of the film is an effective summation of what has occurred without emphasizing any horrific external images of the death planes, the conflagration and smoke, the buildings collapsing, or dramatic rescue and cleanup. Sloan is more concerned about how the emotional stress and trauma continues to play out in the minds and imaginations of those who either witnessed it live, saw the event on TV, or lost family or friends in the collapse. He represents this by predominately focusing his camera on Eric’s and the other characters’ faces and facial expressions.
In an astutely understated way, by spotlighting the reactions of individuals within the interior rooms of Eric’s apartment, symbolizing the interior emotional landscape of their being, Sloan reveals the power of such an incident on everyone. Through his camera direction we understand that we cannot help but anchor the event and aftermath as defining moments in our lives, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. It is a reckoning for us and especially for New Yorkers, but Sloan’s intention brings about a shared experience of expiation and healing. It is a one-of-a-kind film about the aftermath of September 11, 2001, on an intimate level. The result is powerful, poignant, and empathetic.
The arc of the film follows Eric from the moment that he arrives in his apartment to interview the first prospective roommate nine days later on September 20th. The film concludes on October 1, 2001, after he rents the entire apartment. He comes to this decision during the film as we watch him emotionally disintegrate as he experiences the jarring revelations of personal trauma over the stress of 9/11, exacerbated by living in the apartment and interviewing prospective roommates who invariably discuss the event. At the conclusion of Eric’s interior trials, Sloan shows him finally stepping outside the building; he is ready to face a grieving Manhattan and his own inner pain and loss. The decision to give up the apartment indicates he recognizes his emotional crisis (the stress of 9/11 is a part of it), and realizes he must begin to deal with his problems in a constructive way. Sloan has written a complex work that was initially based on his stage play of the same title. The film is an intricacy of captured moments of humor, drama, intimacy, intensity, sadness, and hope, made alive with a rendering that he beautifully instills with cinematic elements that enhance the tropes of the play.
Along the journey of the “search” we note that Eric and those who visit him are incredibly impacted by “the WTC view” outside his Soho apartment window. The window is in the bedroom where the roommate will be resting each night. It is the “dreams that may come” that give the various characters pause from immediately agreeing to rent, though they politely refrain from saying that it might be “the view” of the horror of the WTC site that is giving them pause. Sloan adroitly whispers this and doesn’t make a huge point of it; it is intimated by Eric who states that beforehand getting a roommate happened quickly and easily, since living space was impossible to find in Manhattan (it’s much harder and more expensive a decade later). The reality with all of its meaning is just under the surface of Eric’s consciousness. He knows that the sight outside his window is a truly gruesome and devastating view, but he is in denial. He has suppressed this reality and others which are gradually revealed to us by the conclusion of the film.
Though the characters never say they will not rent because of what they see out of window, all do discuss the events of 9/11 and their experiences; one was in the building and miraculously escaped. Each story, each character is representative of how individuals have confronted the events or avoided thinking about them. The subtlety of how the subject is avoided and then eventually brought by the potential roommates is threaded throughout the interviews and astutely written with authenticity as are Sloan’s characterizations who are quintessential, real and recognizable New Yorkers: the friend, the landlord, the bond trader, the manager, the political assistant, the student, etc. Their interactions with Eric are vibrant and engaging. Nevertheless, they invariably end up in the abyss of the burning debris and smoke of the fires which are acutely visible outside of Eric’s apartment window, but which the director brilliantly never shows. Sloan leaves this up to our imagination as we watch the reaction of the characters as they look at (what we imagine is) the smoking rubble of human dreams pluming upward. We are caught in their reactions which are ours, and somehow together there is revelation and shared understanding and empathy that uplifts.
The film is a much needed rendering of that day and all the days that happened after 9/11. Sloan, with the masterful Urie at the helm and the fine ensemble of actors (Elizabeth Kapplow as Josie (Eric’s friend) and Nick Potenzieri as the bond trader are excellent), has found a way to bring us together to expiate that time for all time and remind us that we must be there for each other despite the current return to “normalcy” and “apparent” New Yorker insouciance. In the film’s humanity and emotional intimacy, we can remember, connect with our own feelings and be recharged to clarity as Eric is. For those who have little knowledge of how people felt in the immediacy of the aftermath because they witnessed from afar, the film is a poignant, powerful, and sometimes humorous record of that time in the personal emotions of New Yorkers. Certainly, it is an important “view,” even if you didn’t have an apartment in Soho.
The WTC View will be available for the first time in its original HD format and is on sale on iTunes for purchase and rental. It originally premiered in NYC at the New Festival in 2005 and was broadcast after screening on the festival circuit. The national broadcast premiere was on MTV’s Logo Channel and aired on the 5th anniversary of 9/11 in 2006. It was also released on DVD by TLA Video.
The 10th Anniversary Edition of WTC View in its first-time HD Format is available on iTunes.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.
In a phone interview I spoke with director Brian Sloan about his film WTC View, which is having its 10th anniversary first-time digital release in HD format on iTunes. (Click here for the film on iTunes) Starring Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Buyer and Celler). WTC View is an intimate look into the life of one New Yorker in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The film is constructed in a subtle way. The character Eric posts an online ad for a roommate on September 10th. On September 20th he is able to return to his apartment and interview prospective candidates. Inevitably, when they investigate the apartment, they go to the window of the bedroom they will be sleeping in only to see the smoking rubble of the WTC site, a horrible view. Then each opens up about where they were when they heard about the events and how their lives have changed as a result of 9/11. Eric listens, and as the film progresses, situations and conversations gradually unfold; we understand what he has been through and how he is in an emotional crisis that he struggles with and denies he has. Only after Eric has a meltdown, does he finally begin to face his crashing emotional devastation. We are there with him every step of the way.
I really liked the film. I’ve lived in NY for most of my life so I can’t see how any New Yorker wouldn’t enjoy this film. Congratulations on its release on iTunes tomorrow, March 3rd in HD format.
I’d like to start by discussing that it was a play first. Could you just talk about how what motivated you to evolve this into a play.
It was a few months after 9/11 and people asked me about this as a film because I was a filmmaker. They asked me questions like, “Oh do you think 9/11 is something that you would write about?” I hadn’t really considered it because it just seemed like too big of a topic and seemed too large for a film. I couldn’t see any way into it. I guess it was about 6 months after 911 that CBS aired the documentary by the Naudet brothers I think it’s just called 9/11. The Naudet brothers were following a rookie fire fighter that day and they ended up having all this footage of them actually in the WTC when this was all happening. I watched that documentary and it struck me that these guys had such a personal perspective on this event. They were unfortunately at the wrong place at the wrong time, but they ended up being able to capture this incredible story and it got me thinking about my story on 911.
My story was that I had taken out this roommate ad which is the last thing I did before I went to bed that night. And then I left my apartment on September 11th. I was in that frozen zone below 14th street. When I got back to the apartment almost a week later, there were all these messages of people calling me about coming to see my apartment. Some even called me on September 12th, which I just thought was crazy and strange. When I started thinking about this whole thing, I thought that this could be an interesting way, a very small look at what was happening, through a small lens, though not even a lens. But it was a situation happening in one room where people are having conversations and monologues about what life was like in the city at that time after 9/11. And I like to say everyone knows what happened on 9/11. The piece really is about what happens after 9/11 on September 12th and the days after that, and what is happening in the city at that time. So I was thinking about these things as a play. I didn’t think about it as a film. I thought the only way this could work was a play in one room and people having these conversations.
I started writing the play. A friend of mine had directed a couple of one act plays recently which were more comic one acts, like comedy sketches. With his encouragement I started writing this up as a play. We submitted it to the Fringe Festival and that’s where it first had its debut onstage.
When you cast this play… did you know the actors you wanted before hand? How did you cast the play?
We were doing it at the Fringe Festival. So it was sort of a no budget operation when you’re doing a show like that. You get actors wherever you can. Basically we kind of pooled our resources. I, the director, and the producer Helena Webb, we all thought of people that we knew who would be right for some of these roles. Andrew Volkoff had a lot more ideas because he had worked in theater and Helena too. Since I worked in film I brought in some people I knew from film. And we started auditioning people. In the end, I had actually seen Michael Urie in a play that Andrew directed the year before. And we were having trouble finding this lead role. I remembered that Michael was at Julliard. And I remember thinking well, this is great because we need someone with serious training because the actor’s onstage for the entire show for like two hours straight. No break. And I considered that it’s hard for a film actor to make that transition and to do that role. Some people who came in were great, but I didn’t know if they could do that role for two hours on stage. It’s a different operation.
Michael Urie came in and he read for us. I suspected that he was a bit younger than the part that we were casting. I asked Andrew not to tell me what his actual age was and he didn’t. And it turned out that Michael was about 9 years younger than the role called for in the script. But we figured that he’s a really great actor and that he could act a little bit older, and we can do some hair and makeup stuff that will make him look slightly older as well. When people saw it, people didn’t think that he was too young for the part. And then we really kind of cast around him. You can set a cast up to make them look younger or older. When you tell the audience the age, you create a world in which it is true and it is believable to them.
Wish I had seen the play. He was wonderful in the film. Looks like he turned out to be a find since he hit with Ugly Betty and other things, like Buyer and Cellar.
Yeah. Ugly Betty came out I think a month after our broadcast premiere of the film which was on MTV’s Logo channel. With Ugly Betty coming out a month afterward, it was show he’s become much more widely known for. After that he’s been doing better and better.
That could only be positive for WTC View which stands on its own. But his performance and the other actors were really wonderful. So it started at the Fringe and people really liked it. I read somewhere that you were wary about whether or not it was too soon for something like this, but turns out it was well received. How did it evolve from there?
From the Fringe, we got some really great responses and very good reviews and the show did very well. We initially hoped that we could move it to some Off Broadway house or somewhere Off Off Broadway, but we really had trouble finding commercial interest. At that time, 2003, the commercial feeling was that this kind of a play is not something that New Yorkers are going to see. It was still too close to the 9/11 attacks. There was a feeling that since there were two other high profile plays that were also 911 related and they had failed that year, it was a risk. We couldn’t get anybody interested in making that transfer.
When that happened, I just started thinking about making this for a broader audience. Initially, we were thinking of something like a PBS style live playhouse and actually filming the play. That didn’t really go anywhere. Then I started thinking about making an actual film because this is what I do and what I know how to do. I know how to make a very low budget film and make it good. I started thinking that if I look at this carefully, I can turn it into a film. Then it didn’t seem possible after all. But I started talking to some people and other producers and people encouraged me. They felt that the topic was what makes this really interesting, as well as the way that the topic is approached. You know it might not be the most cinematic movie because it still has its roots in the play and you can’t get away from that.
But the thing that made it unique was dealing with this topic in such a different way. We are dealing with the events after the attacks from this one person’s perspective. We’re showing this very realistic look at life in NY at that time. A lot of films about 9/11 tend to treat the subject very melodramatically or super tragically. It definitely was a major tragedy that happened in the city. But I think life in the city was not that way afterwards. People were trying to deal with events in different ways. Some people were dealing with it with humor. Some people didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to show that range of experience in the film.
You were encouraged to transfer it to a screenplay. I love the fact that the entire film takes place within Eric’s apartment until the very end. What were some of the issues and concerns that you had making the play into a film.
Well the biggest concern was probably not trying to make it something it wasn’t. I thought of ways to make the action break out of the apartment. You know have Eric walk through the city.
I’m glad you didn’t.
But I didn’t because the more I thought about it, it doesn’t really make sense for what this is. The guy is almost trapped in his apartment.
In his mind…
In his mind, truly. I thought I could continue that in the film. Also there’s a history of films that take place in one location. It’s not something that hasn’t been done before. The most famous is probably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, which also was adapted from a play. So there are a lot of other films. I actually started watching a lot those movies. Rope was definitely a big one for me. I watched Rosemary’s Baby; most of it takes place in their apartment. And there was also an indie film from the 90s, called What Happened Was. It is about a date in an apartment that sort of goes crazy over the course of an evening.
My Dinner With Andre is another one in just one location.
Yeah, My Dinner With Andre
That was a great decision on your part.
Thanks. I’m definitely glad that we stuck with what we did. I think it would have lost its focus and lost its feeling. And that’s what I think this movie is about. The film gives you a sense of this character and what he’s going through.
Then you took the original play and staged it at 59E59 Theatres. How did that happen?
That came about because we wanted to do a full production of the show that would be different from the Fringe where we had no money. We wanted to do a full, traditional production. And also we wanted to do something around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. We felt that NY is a constantly changing city and maybe there is an audience living here now who is interested in seeing this. It turns out that there was. A lot of people came to see the production. We had a great run at 59E59. I feel that because there were a few more years removed from 9/11, people were able to see the play as a play. That for me was really heartening. People were able to see that it is more than just a strict documentary. They can see that the play is really getting at this character, getting at what he’s going through and telling this person’s story in a theatrical way.
One thing I think every New Yorker will identify with in perpetuity is getting living space in the city and having to have a roommate or partner to afford living here.
It’s a New York thing for sure.
As cities nationwide become more expensive to live in, that is a topic that will continue to resonate. I like how you dealt with the window subtly, the view of the WTC site. I also liked how we don’t know what really happened to the character until the end of the film. I thought you unfolded it in a very human and realistic way.
You mention the window. That’s one of the things I really love about the film which we couldn’t do onstage, which was sort of to see what people are seeing, I mean to see their reactions as they are looking out that window. It’s a very intimate moment. In the play the characters are generally faced away from the audience who don’t see their reactions as well. In the film we could get in there and closely focus on their reactions. That’s one of the more interesting adaptations that happened in the film version.
I loved the many meanings of WTC View, a play almost on Room With a View…
It’s a powerful and beautiful film. Good luck and looking forward to its release on iTunes March 3rd.
Yeah. It’s great to talk to a fellow New Yorker about apartments. It’s very true. I was looking at the original ad for this apartment and now it’s about double the cost, so the real estate situation gets crazier and crazier.
This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.
After screening the fine indie film WTC View directed by Brian Sloan which is being re-released on iTunes March 3rd, I spoke via phone with Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Drama Desk winner for Buyer and Cellar). Urie enjoyed his breakout film debut in WTC View which was released in 2005. Michael Urie originated the role of Eric in the play WTC View at the Fringe. Like the play, the film WTC View is about Eric who places an online ad in the Village Voice for a roommate to share his spacious two bedroom apartment in Soho. It is Sunday evening, September 10, 2001. The next day the earth shifted on its axis and none of us were the same again. When Eric is able to return to his apartment which is below 14th street in what was the “frozen zone,” he comes back physically ready to interview and show the apartment to prospective roommates. Emotionally and psychically he is suffering and barely able to cope or deal with the situation. He is in denial and struggles as the days pass and no one rents the apartment which has a view of the World Trade Center’s smoking debris cavern. How Eric eventually is helped and who helps him is a tour de force sprinkled with humor, poignancy and powerful performances by the ensemble cast with Urie as the brilliant, masterful actor at the helm.
Pat Addiss adores your work as your producer on Buyer and Cellar. I am friendly with her and will send this interview over to her when it is up. She will appreciate it. I really loved you in Buyer and Cellar and I love you in this film.
Thank you so much.
You’re hearing it all the time, I’m sure, Michael. (I laugh)
It never gets old.
You remind me of what Emily Blundt said to me when I said she was superb in The Young Victoria, then apologized for being tiresome. She said, “Well, it’s much better than saying ‘I hate you.’
You auditioned for the play WTC View and you originated the character of Eric. Were there any challenges when you did the play and then when you switched over to filming WTC View?
Well, it was a big part and he was in every scene. In the play there was a lot to carry. It wasn’t anything compared to Buyer and Cellar (It was long before Buyer and Cellar). It was a hard play. It was a really hard play to do. Emotionally, physically there was a lot…a lot going on. But it was a great experience, extremely rewarding. The play really meant a lot to people. It hadn’t even been two years since 911 when we did the play. So it was still very fresh in people’s minds, especially in New York. And 9 months later we made the film, which is crazy. It is so rare that things like that happen that you do a play and then it is turned into a film and you’re in both.
But doing it on stage even in the little theater we were in, it was called The Bottle Factory Theater which has 15 seats or something, even in a theater like that sometimes people are 20 feet away from you and you have to turn what’s happening to you, especially in my character who does so much listening to other people’s stories, I had to turn what I was feeling into behavior for the stage so that people could get it. Then when we made the film, such behavior could be read just by looking at me in the eye. That is the idea of the film. You don’t have to turn what you’re feeling into behavior because it could be read on your face because the camera picks it up. So I had to learn that. It was challenging. I trusted Brian Sloan the director and the DP. And of course, you have to trust the editor to pick up the right emotions and looks and make you seem truthful.
Well you were truthful in the film and there is a complex range of emotions. There’s everything from humor and comedy and whimsicality and then of course the emotional scenes when you break down. I thought this arc of emotions you did really, really well.
It’s amazing because when I saw you in Buyer and Cellar, of course, the arc was different as the character was different. But you are an actor of nuance and I was seeing that in WTC View. What did you learn from the experiences of the play and the film to carry that over to something like Buyer and Cellar.
When I did Buyer and Cellar, I had to relearn how to maintain that energy and sustain it, you know to keep the ball in the air, because that was so much of my job in the play in WTC View, to keep the ball in the air, and to keep the momentum going forward. It was really Eric’s story and he also facilitated the story of all the other great characters. And so when I did Buyer and Cellar, more so than any other previous experience, I was back to my WTC View memories and those muscles, that muscle that keeps you up and keeps you inflated, for want of a better word. You have stay in it, stay a part of, you have to stay in the moment, stay emotionally connected and keep the audience with you following you, excited and thrilled. There weren’t that many similarities between the two projects but I would say that would be the big one.
In what way do you think that Eric might be an Everyman?
He is kind of an Everyman. That is an interesting way to put it. I think he represents… we get to know a lot of characters in WTC View, but Eric is the only one we spend time with privately. I think that is a wonderful way to bring someone into a character; that is to spend time with them privately…certainly in the film. We spend a lot of time with him alone and we get into what it is that he is going through. I think because of that, he feels like all of us and also because he is going through what all of us really went through after 911. We all felt frightened and alone and in need of comfort after 911 whether we had loved ones nearby or not. I think we all went through that. I did certainly.
I thought it was an amazing point of character that he was so reactive to various things that are commonplace, like loud street sounds, like the sirens which would set him off.
Yeah. And that paranoia that we were all feeling, maybe not to the same extent that Eric was feeling in the play or the movie but he kind of represented that for us and I feel that people can really relate to that. And for people who are not old enough to remember 911, I think that the film is a great way to see what it was like. Of course anybody who was not around for 911 still knows all about it. You know what happened. You can watch the videos, but you don’t know what it was like being a citizen of the world following it. How things changed, especially in New York. The play/film is really a microcosm of what it was like to be in New York after 911 and what it was like to deal with and relate to strangers.
Is that one of the most vital points of the film, do you think?
I think so. It’s that we took care of each other. Everyone felt isolated and paranoid, but we came together and took care of each other, even strangers. And in the end, he does have one of his closest friends try to help him. But other than that, everyone in the film that he meets is a stranger, except for his closest friend played by Liz Kapplow who is wonderful…Josie. But I think what the film says about strangers is that sometimes a stranger can be more beneficial than a close friend or loved one. In the film, it isn’t Josie, ultimately, who helps him…not really. It’s others. He really grows and changes and learns and recoups thanks to the kindness of strangers, not so much from the people that are closest to him. I guess because what we knew wasn’t really helping us. What we knew wasn’t helping us to avoid 911. The known wasn’t helpful. It was the unknowns that we had to rely on. I think that’s part of why strangers became so important to us.
Where were you Michael when the 911 attacks happened. Were you at Julliard?
Yeah. It was my second day of my third year and I was actually living in Queens. I was on my way to school when I noticed on TV that one plane had hit. I went ahead to the subway, knowing that when I got to the platform it would be above ground and I would be able to see the World Trade Center. And when I got there and looked both were on fire. So between leaving my house and getting to the train the second plane had hit. Somebody turned to me on the platform and said they got the other one. That was the first time I realized that it was intentional.
Where in Queens? Astoria?
(I receive a signal that the interview time is up.) Michael, it was great talking to you.
Give Pat Addiss a squeeze for me. (Pat Addiss is producer on Buyer and Cellar which Michael is starring in at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London from March 12-May 2nd)
I will! Well, thanks so much and good luck in all of your projects and with the re-release of the film WTC View on iTunes (March 3rd). By the way, I love your web series (What’s Your Emergency).
Thank you. We’re going to do another season, hopefully.
Well, all Right! Director, producer, actor, what more can you want? (Michael laughs.)
10th Anniversary First-Time Digital Release
WTC View is available now on iTunes. Click here for purchase or rental.
This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.