For those unfamiliar with William Strauss and Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy—the internet tells me it’s a doomsday-ish cyclical theory of American history, with the dubious double distinction of influencing Game of Thrones and inspiring that brilliant philosophical deep thinker, Steve Bannon.
I’d never heard of it, so the title of Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning instead suggested a comic book, or maybe a bloated network sci-fi TV series that would likely disappear after one season.
If only. Either—or even watching all of Game of Thrones in a single sitting—would be preferable to the hellish experience of more than two intermissionless hours with this pretentious, smugly provocative, virtuosically wordy but fundamentally empty play.
Since Arbery clearly loves the Socratic method, I’ll indulge in a little debate with him myself—not in real life, and not, heaven forbid, with the play itself (I wouldn’t know where to begin). Instead, I’ll engage in conversation with his program note:
WA: I was raised by Catholic conservative academics… I would stay up past my bedtime, on porches and patios, listening to professors and students…
DF: Oh, what a great idea for a play! Seriously—these are certainly voices largely unheard at Playwrights Horizons, a bastion of liberalism and secular humanism. How interesting to challenge that status quo.
WA: The conservatism modeled for me was poetic, passionate and nuanced.
DF: Even better! But, Will… why don’t I see this on the stage?
I really wish there were a response to that last question, because what we get instead is an archly constructed compendium of opinions, spouted by characters who feel more like archetypal dramatis personae.
There’s Justin, a taciturn veteran (Jeb Kreager, terrific) who talks like a cracker but is educated and thoughtful; Kevin, a well-meaning, compassionate but self-defeating Outsider (John Zdrojeski, channeling a young Ethan Hawke); Emily, a frail young woman who is either a living saint or an hysteric (Julia McDermott, good in an impossible role); and Teresa, a smugly knowing, self-consciously pretty conservative mouthpiece who enjoys driving people crazy (Zoë Winters, appropriately annoying).
They talk. And talk. And talk more.
I’m no expert on Catholicism, but I can tell you that the conversations here circle largely around three flashpoint topics: racism, immigration, and, most of all, abortion. The interesting question of whether Catholicism and conservatism are inseparably linked is put on the table but unanswered. Strangely, there is virtually no mention of the church’s history of humanitarian efforts… nor, on the other end of the spectrum, the current crisis of sexual abuse. Unsurprisingly, the four characters whose discussions take up most of the play are rarely in agreement.
Late in the action, a fifth voice joins the fray—Gina, Emily’s mother, a beloved teacher to the assembled group, all of whom attended the same local Catholic College. Gina now is the newly-invested President of that distinguished institution. Of course, her own reading of doctrine throws everyone else’s into question. The thinness of this dramaturgical device may be responsible for the weakest performance in the show, by the usually marvelous Michele Pawk. We are apparently meant to see Gina as a formidable, take-no-prisoners visionary; but Pawk, becomingly blonded, instead dispenses the unctuous charm of a TV shopping network host.
Further murking the waters is what I take to be an intended element of mystical portent in Arbery’s play—perhaps we are, after all, really nearing the End Time?
This ominousness is so gorgeously realized in director Danya Taymor’s production (scenery by Laura Jellinek, lighting by Isabella Byrd, sound by Justin Ellington) that for the first 30 minutes or so, I gave myself over completely to Heroes, breathlessly waiting for something magical to happen.
Alas, it doesn’t. If anything, the mystical elements of the play prove to be a red herring, though also a welcome relief from all the blather.
Did I mention that the whole of Heroes of the Fourth Turning is played in near-darkness (we are in the middle of the night in rural Wyoming). At one point, Kevin delightedly exclaims that he can actually see stars, which we the audience cannot.
The gloom is a brilliant choice from director Taymor. To see Heroes in a bright space would very quickly expose its thinness. I can’t vouch for Strauss and Howe’s theories, but I can state with absolute certainty that Arbery’s play could not withstand the light.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning plays through October 27th. For more information, visit the Playwrights Horizons website.