LORD, WHAT FOOLS WE LIBERALS BE…
In a beanbagged, bright-coloured primary school in Berkeley, California, its executive committee of five seek consensus over reclassifying the drop-down menu for applicants. Is “transracial adoptee” as important a definition as “Native American”? Should “Jewish” be an option separate from “White?” The newcomer – Carina – makes a faux pas by referring to her child as ‘he’ not ‘they”, which is school policy, though members kindly reassure her “we’re not saying you don’t know your child’s personal pronouns”.
We learn that Eureka Day is a school where kids cheer for the other team, where the school-play Peter Pan had to be cleansed of colonial issues by setting it in outer space, and lavatories are being expensively de-gendered by a contractor who sources local materials responsibly. Yet already we are reminded how defensive-parenthood is red in tooth and claw: the problem with Carina’s last school was that her child is superbright and “couldn’t get special needs support unless he was failing”. Whereon she is insulted by a soothing “there’s a lot of neurodiversity here”. Still, as old hippie Don meaninglessly says, before reading another truism from the Persian mystic Rumi about how lamps don’t give light until they’re lit “We are a school of choice in a community of intention”. And at the meetings they always have organic donuts made by a mentally disabled but famous physicist.
So we know where we are: joyfully satirizing middle-class liberal-cum-hippie angst, parental protectiveness and the age of offence-taking, as in beloved recent comedies like God of Carnage and Clybourne Park. But as it heats , the focus shifts to the even more topical theme : digital misinformation, rumour and fake news getting indiscriminately sucked in and solidified into identity politics. There’s a mumps outbreak, and the authorities want quarantine. A lot of parents – two on the committee – are antivaxxers, determined that Big Pharma isn’t going to con them into “poisoning” their children. But the vaccinators are equally outraged by the risk to a herd-immunity which keeps their own safer. Jonathan Spector’s play predates Covid, but couldn’t be more topical.
The last ten minutes of the first hour become something really special, as the committee do a Zoom meeting with invisible parents who join in – projected on the back wall and ceiling – with classic, glorious, horribly recognizable WhatsAppery. It begins with a lot of non-sequitur “Hi everyone” and chat about soup and someone who moved to Vancouver, or was it Montreal? But as Don and the committee talk of closure and quarantine the heat rises, at first with people piously “not being comfortable” with various words, moving on to personal remarks about whether chiropractors count as real doctors, and working up – in beautifully choreographed acrimony – to the inevitable words “Fascist” and “Nazi”. The glory of it is the technically precise use of this projected online onslaught as the cast centre-stage round the laptop gallantly keep up with the elegantly written script while being almost totally inaudible : simply because of the gales of helpless, choking, non-stop laughter from the audience reading the posts.
Actually, it’s that quarter-hour or so which wins it the fifth mouse: not because the whole play is stellar but because for two years we have all very, very much needed that experience of sitting laughing, helplessly, with a thousand strangers. Don’s final line “I am feeling like this format is not bringing our best selves to the conversation” made me actually choke.
The second act sees the committee picking up the pieces, afflicted by the darker fact of proper pain: Eli’s child is seriously ill, having probably got it off the antivaxxer May, with whom he has been sleeping, to his invisible wife’s disgust. Though as a colleague concernedly chirps “I thought you guys had passed through monogamy?” . We learn that the co-founder Suzanne, a finely nuanced performance by Helen Hunt, had a past tragedy which solidified, probably unreasonably, her attitude to medical science. We see Ben Schnetzer’s Eli grow from the borderline-idiot hypersensitive wokey of the start to adult understanding. From Kirsten Foster’s May we get the most beautiful display of grit-teethed furiously aggressive silent knitting, then a crazy outburst of hatred for every modern thing from antibiotics to plastic. We relish too the sight of hapless old Don in his khaki bush shorts trying to write down their shared beliefs “respectfully” on a flip-chart, while being eviscerated by Carina (Susan Kelechi Watson). Oh, and Suzanne becoming even more hapless when Carina cracks up enough to snarl at the white woman’s assumption that she is on “financial support” just because she’s black. She isn’t. Oh, the pain, the exquisite pain of it all.
So I loved it. And it comes to a sort of conclusion, but never again is it as satisfyingly over-the-top as during that Zoom meeting ending the first half. Well, how could it be. But it’s a lovely evening, excruciatingly topical, a neat two -hour counterweight to all our first-world-problems.
Www.oldvictheatre.com. To. 31 Oct