Set in October 1969 ten days before the “Days of Rage” protest in Chicago over the Chicago 8, the play follows the interpersonal relationships between a group of radical twentysomethings and college dropouts living in a collective modeled on the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in an upstate New York college town as they attempt to sign up recruits to join them for the march the following weekend. They are also dealing with the simmering fires of discontent among them. As directed by Trip Cullman, the play is engrossing and moves with speed, but the 20 scenes which alternate between outdoor and indoor scenes in the two-story set seem more like a film script than a stage play and the characters become less sympathetic as it proceeds to its surprising conclusion.
While the Vietnam War rages overseas, Richard, Jeff, Quinn, Spence and Jenny, former high school sweethearts, have set up a collective to wage counterrevolution against it in an Upstate New York college town where at least two of them were former students. Among their collectivist principals of sharing everything has been a rotating schedule for sex and a “criticism circle” that can go on for hours. However, Richard and Jeff, committed to greater activism than the others, have stolen Jenny’s car and have left fore points unknown. The remaining three are busy trying to round up interest in a ride to the Chicago 8 Days of Rage protest march while the enrolled students are preparing for midterms.
Complicating their work is Jenny’s meeting with Hal, a 23-year-old African-American low level manager at Sears whose brother has enlisted to fight in Vietnam, and Spence’s meeting with a Seattle runaway, 17-year-old Peggy, who is looking for a place to crash and pretends to be interested in Spence’s message about the war. As the collective is down to its last $54 and their rent is overdue, they allow Peggy to shack up with them as she has offered to pay their expenses with the $2000 she brought with her. Unfortunately, she immediately considers herself a part of the collective and starts meddling with their relationships and their plans. When Peggy claims to be followed by a man who threatens her, they all assume that the FBI is checking up on them and the tension rises as they believe they are in danger.
Levenson appears to be satirizing middle-class student political activism, but making his story dependent on personalities rather than politics. (Peggy thinks Lenin is one of the Beatles.) Days of Rage is more focused on the in-fighting between the members of the collective than their actions. Director Cullman is fine with the characterizations making these youth both convincing and individual. However, he cannot make up for the problems inherent in the writing. Tavi Gevinson’s Peggy, a self-entitled teenager who is a quick study, is voluble, demanding, quick to make things up and generally obnoxious. Not only does she drive the plot, but she also attempts to drive a wedge in the long-term relationship bewteen Jenny, Spence and Quinn. The more we see and hear of her, the less we like her.
Lauren Patten’s Jenny is a complicated person, not very forthcoming in all of her activities, disappearing overnight and not revealing where she has been, but getting disillusioned with the aims of the collective. In an underwritten role, Mike Faist as Spence adds able support as a young man caught between competing loyalties, but we don’t entirely know where he stands on the issues. Odessa Young’s Quinn is a very strong young woman of integrity and unwavering convictions. In what might be the most interesting role, J. Alphonse Nicholson’s Hal as the African American who meets Jenny in front of the Sears he works at is not given enough to do or a big enough role to play. The information about him is imparted slowly throughout the play’s 20 scenes so that it does not build up a complete portrait of him. Ironically as a man of color, he is just who the collective claim they are fighting for but they entirely take him for granted.
Louisa Thompson’s two-story set for the rundown old house the collective is living in is at first quite impressive. However, each time there is a scene on the street or somewhere outside, the house is pulled back and then brought forward again which is both awkward and time consuming. The costumes by Paloma Young are fine, but the lighting by Tyler Micoleau does not always make a clear distinction between day and night scenes. Darron L. West’s sound design is mostly excellent though some of the off stage sound effects do not have the desired effect.
As proven elsewhere, Steven Levenson is expert at depicting young people in crisis on stage. Days of Rage is very real in its handling of a group of people of similar beliefs living together who have forces that are driving them apart, and as such it is engrossing and intriguing. However, the play’s theme seems to be rather opaque or at least vague in its depiction of college-age radicals at the height of the Vietnam War. While some of the characters are thinly drawn, most problematic is that the catalyst to all the action is a character that we want least to hear from.
Days of Rage (through November 25, 2018)
Second Stage Theater
Tony Kiser Theater, 305 W. 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-246-4422 or visit http://www.2st.com
Running time: one hour and 35 minutes with no intermission