Shakespeare, no dunce, set his history plays among the long-gone and largely forgotten. “Richard II,” for instance, took its first bow two centuries after the actual Richard II took his last. That was long enough to outwit nit-pickers and squeeze poetry from a monster.
Anne Washburn gives herself no such breathing room in “Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017,” her thrillingly oracular but unfinished-feeling fantasy about the failures of liberalism in the deep recent past. You may faintly recall 2017 as the year in which a chaotic Richard-like ruler named Donald J. Trump came to power unexpectedly, at once deranging a country.
Or so the seven friends gathered in a converted upstate New York farmhouse see it. All in their 40s, all liberals or leftists (plus one self-proclaimed radical), they at first seem to agree that the president has strayed so far beyond the bounds of political decency that he will be removed from office or forced to resign forthwith.
But cracks in the conversation and in the play’s theatrical shell almost immediately signal squishiness in that position. It begins with banter about the implications of the Public Theater’s Trump-baiting production of “Julius Caesar” that summer. (The Public, along with Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington, has produced “Shipwreck” as a new on-demand audio play, available indefinitely and for free.)
Soon, bigger differences emerge. Allie (Brooke Bloom) complains that no one has been responding to her unceasing slew of anti-Trump tweets with commensurate action. Being a lawyer, Andrew (Jeremy Shamos) points out that action is exactly what tweets aren’t.
The promise of a homemade dinner and good wine helps paper over these fault lines. But if you’ve seen Washburn’s work before — including “The Internationalist,” “10 Out of 12” and especially “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play” — you know that the intermittent suppression of conflict is a tensioning device that will pay off in big, odd ways.
In “Shipwreck,” she is not shy about providing road signs. There’s the title, of course, presumably referring to the ship of state. And when Jools (Sue Jean Kim) shows Mare (Mia Barron) around the farmhouse, it comes as little surprise to learn that its first rooms were built in 1776.
So when a vicious snowstorm kicks up, and the lights gutter, and Richard (Richard Topol) arrives having forgotten to buy any groceries, you sense that the comity among the liberal friends, no less than that of the liberal democracy they live in, is about to go south. Washburn’s affection for the farmhouse band already has; she’s merciless in mocking them as aestheticizers of disaster. “I think we look wonderful in candlelight,” Mare says when the electricity cuts out completely. “Are these beeswax?”
It’s through such cracks that Washburn’s insinuating way with terror sneaks in. For one thing, you realize that time has gone awry; why is there a snowstorm in what from all other signs, including the former F.B.I. director James Comey’s concurrent testimony before Congress, is June? Who is the farmer (Bruce McKenzie) interrupting the action from another year entirely to talk about adopting an African orphan? Why is Mare’s husband, Jim (Rob Campbell), muttering to himself about the birth of yet another person’s baby?
Things get even spookier when Andrew’s husband Luis (Raúl Esparza) jokes that he may have voted for Trump. Or is he joking? It’s as if a ghost entered the room.
Ghostliness is one aspect of “Shipwreck” that Saheem Ali’s production, which was revamped as a three-part podcast when the pandemic scuttled plans for a traditional staging, gets across beautifully. Deploying original music by the Bengsons and a riveting sound design by Palmer Hefferan, Ali — who also “freely adapted” the script — serves up a creepy, what-was-that backdrop of whispery echoes and choral fragments, like “Carmina Burana” played not just backward but inside out.
The fanfares help establish that “Shipwreck,” like its evident model “Angels in America,” is going to keep introducing new levels of narrative, each one upping the theatrical ante. These eventually lead us to Trump himself, in scenes with Comey and President George W. Bush that leave the more naturalistic aspects of the play in the dust. Bush (Phillip James Brannon) is a corn-pone wheedler, easily outmaneuvered. Comey (Joe Morton) is a more formidable adversary, refusing to promise personal loyalty to the president over a private dinner soon after the inauguration. But he is ultimately too compromised to mount a successful resistance to the Ayn Randian character that Washburn has installed in her imaginative White House of Horrors.
Trump, in Bill Camp’s performance, is an astonishing creation. Equal parts Beelzebub, Willy Wonka, Howard Roark and Oz, he brags and lies and masticates his way through the infamous dinner, here set in what sounds like a drippy cave next to the Oval Office. This is Trump as the liberals’ golem, a mutated Kissinger in whom morality has been eaten away to nothing by Randian Realpolitik Derangement syndrome.
As a character, this Trump puts the rest of “Shipwreck” to shame — which may be Washburn’s point but is a problem dramatically. Shakespeare at least gave his rulers equipotent antagonists. And in “Angels,” a play that Washburn’s Trump mentions indirectly for its “unfair treatment” of his mentor Roy Cohn, the intrusion of the otherworldly is eventually woven into the story’s human texture. It takes almost eight hours, but it happens.
At just 2 hours and 15 minutes, divided unequally among the three podcast episodes, “Shipwreck” can’t wheel itself around to that kind of convergence. Nor does it have enough time, even after Washburn cut several characters in the transition to audio, to explore satisfyingly all the ones that remain. Most tantalizingly, it leaves dangling Luis’s proposition that “art cannot save us” because it “isn’t a call to arms, it’s an elegy.” Washburn seems determined to prove him wrong.
Longer, “Shipwreck” might even have found time to give some credit to the caricatured liberals, who get none whatsoever; with their inanities and inaction, they are even worse counterweights to Trump than Bush or Comey were.
Fair enough — there are very few plays willing to do the work of liberal self-criticism, let alone so imaginatively. But to the extent the Trump agenda stalled in real life, was it not a result of resistance and blowback from progressives using social media as a megaphone? They were not all admiring the beeswax. Perhaps, given enough time, “Shipwreck” will see that.
Available on the Public Theater website and major podcast platforms; publictheater.org
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