Off-Broadway CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review

Do you think it's important to lead a good life, Lu? I mean -- not, you know, morally good, but just good. Just happy? --- Albert Parsons, an editor turned anarchist, as he's contemplating whether to accept the chance to win a pardon rather than become a martyr to the cause (an 8-hour work day) that led to the May 4, 1886 bombing at Chicago's Haymarket Square.

Squeaky Moore as Lucy Parson
Squeaky Moore as Lucy Parsons
(Photo: Trevor Oswalt)
On May 4, 1886 a group of anarchist-socialist organizers called a meeting in Chicago's Haymarket Square to demand an eight-hour day for the city's workers. When the police tried to break up the meeting, somebody in the crowd hurled an iron sphere filled with dynamite at them. The bomb exploded, the police opened fire into the crowd, and seven policeman as well as several workers were killed. Outraged by this act of terrorism and frustrated in their efforts to identify or capture the bomb thrower, the police arrested seven known anarchist leaders, five of whom were tried for conspiracy and subsequently hanged, though some were never near the scene of the crime.

Zayd Dohrn's Haymarket, which is playing through December 23rd in the Theatre Row complex on 42nd Street, is the most recent attempt by an artist to capture the tragedy of the Haymarket Riots and their subsequent miscarriages of justice. The Mexican muralist Diego Rivera depicted the accused anarchists as victims of state oppression. Irish-American novelist Frank Harris's 1909 novel, The Bomb, is still in print. In the play Haymarket Eight Derek Goldman and Jessica Thebus used the tumultuous historic events as the canvas for the love story of a young investigative reporter and a secretary. In Day of Reckoning, the Castillo Theater's All Star project for last year's Black History Month African-American playwright and actress Melody Cooper approached the story as a biographical drama about Lucy Parsons, the wife of one of the convicted anarchists who went on to champion socialist causes until her death at almost ninety.

Haymarket again features Lucy Parsons as a pivotal character but Zayd Dohrn has made her one of a whole spectrum of people whose lives and actions were shaped by the bombing. By creating a composite character of Lucy and Albert Parsons' two children -- a thirty-three-year old daughter -- Dohrn set up the framework for flashing backward and forwards between the post-bombing events and its still lingering effects on the surviving members on the Parsons family thirty years later. Though even the 1916 events take us back almost a full century, the still painful trauma of 9/11 and the ongoing controversy over the Patriot Act passed in its wake, lend a strong note of timeliness to Mr. Dohrn's interesting but flawed drama.

The production, as directed by Robert Saxner, effectively deals with an obviously limited budget. It uses a single unit set and dual role casting to move between 1916 and a mental hospital to which Lucy Parsons has committed her daughter and various locations where the 1886 events are replayed. The flashback scenes include: another hospital where a young policeman badly wounded by the Haymarket bomb explosion is cared for by a nurse; the Chicago mayor's office; the Parsons' Chicago apartment; the suburban home of a Daniel Hoan wealthy industrialist who shelters Parsons before he is persuaded to turn himself in; the courtroom where Parsons' decision about whether to accept a chance to be pardoned or become a martyr plays out; and the jail where he's held before and after his trial.

Dennis McNitt, the only member of the cast to play just one role, convincingly portrays Albert Parsons as the mild and likeable anarchist who admits that he may not be cut out to be a martyr. The scenes revealing the attraction between Parsons and Jenny Hoan (Birgit Huppuch) are nicely understated, as is the scene when Albert's wife (Squeaky Moore) becomes aware that Jenny is both a friend and potential rival. Huppuch also plays a young nurse whose policeman brother is killed by the bomb. Her testimony at the trial and her aborted romance with the young policeman who survives but is deafened are among the play's more touching moments. D. Zhonzinsky takes on the roles of the self-absorbed and inept mayor and Parsons' well meaning but also inept lawyer. Morgan Baker does triple duty: as the young psychiatrist trying to help the younger Lucy from the horrors common in hospitals for the insane in 1916, and in the less sympathetic roles of the ruthless policeman John Bonfield as well as the trial judge Joseph Gary. The ensemble is competent but it's the women who are most interesting.

My main problem with the play stems from the playwright's most drastic departure from real characters and events -- the transformation of the Parson's two children into the composite character of a surviving daughter and having her incarcerated as an adult (According to true accounts of the Parsons family, young Lucy died at age eight and it was her brother who was committed to a mental hospital as a child, just three years after the bombing). Unless you buy into this grown-up Lucy's being deranged enough to warrant incarceration, the mother's committing her seems like a monstrous act -- which nothing about the woman's character, at least as written and portrayed here, supports. The madhouse Lucy's conversations with the doctor does evoke a picture of the mother as a fierce anarchist-lecturer that is closer to the Lucy Parsons depicted in the abundant biographical information about her than the script or dignified, laid back way the script and the director have encouraged Moore to play her. Her scenes with McNitt are also somewhat confusing. She seems more a typical, eager to please wife than a powerful revolutionary, so that her influencing Albert to become an anarchist (and a martyr) isn't all that persuasive.

The young doctor's attempt to introduce analysis in a mental hospital still accustomed to less humane practices may be intended to show that even after Parsons' unjustified hanging, people like his emotionally fragile daughter could still be deprived of their civil rights by another powerful institution. If so, it doesn't really work except to add yet another unhappy ending and make Mr. Dohrn's story too often feels more like a social studies lesson than the gripping drama it could and should be.

Playwright: Zayd Dohrn
Directed by Robert Saxner
Cast: Morgan Baker, Birgit Huppuch, Judson Jones, Dennis McNitt, Squeaky Moore and D. Zhonzinsky.
Set Design: Heidi Meisenhelder
Costume Design: Victoria Tzykun
Lighting Design: Stephen Sakowski
Sound Design: Haddon Kime

Running time: 2 hours and 5 minutes, including one intermission .
Alchemy Theatre Company at the Beckett 410 West 42nd Street, (212) 279-4200
From 12/08/05 to 12/23/05; opening 12/12/05
Monday, Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 2:00 & 7:00 pm
Tickets: $15.

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 9th press preview performance
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