Theater Review: POWER OF SAIL (Geffen Playhouse)

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by Marc Wheeler on February 22, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles


Ever heard of Godwin’s Law? If you’ve spent a sizable amount of time on social media you’ve surely experienced it. An adage from the ‘90s, Godwin’s Law states that the longer an online discussion continues the chance that someone gets compared to Hitler (or Nazis) is inescapable. The Law serves to caution against arguments devolving into outlandish hyperbole; our goal, it states, should be in keeping discussions calm and rational, especially in our disagreements. Once Nazis are brought into a conversation — given that they’re not actually germane to it — the person who invoked them “loses” the debate, and the discussion-thread is over. It’s within such hyperbolic waters that careens Power of Sail, a play whose promising premise and plot-driven twists are sadly overshadowed by such Godwinian polemics.

Brandon Scott and Bryan Cranston

Now playing at Geffen Playhouse adjacent to UCLA, Paul Grellong’s 2019 morality tale is set within the world of academia. It focuses on Harvard professor and historian Charles Nichols, the play’s assumed hero. (Put a pin in that.) Played with chutzpah and star power by Bryan Cranston (Walter White in Breaking Bad), Nichols has caused the school to erupt into controversy when news leaks that one of his invited guests at this year’s annual symposium is a notorious white supremacist. As students protest outside Charlie’s office window, Harvard Dean Amy Katz (played emphatically by Judging Amy’s Amy Brenneman) storms into his office to make her upset known. Charlie insists his secret plan is to expose the Holocaust-denier and take him down the best way he knows how: better speech. As the play makes abundantly clear (by repeating, as if to mock, a free-speech catchphrase), Charlie believes the greatest way to combat speech we don’t like, or disagree with, is countering it with better speech. In short: more speech, not less speech, is how we confront the illogical and ugly.

Tedra Millan

It’s easily assumed that the declared showdown with a white supremacist is where this is all heading. But here, Waiting for Whitey is like Waiting for Godot. Playwright Grellong, we learn, has other plans up his sleeve: plans that give him an “easy out,” and audiences a missed opportunity. For a play so clearly primed for rigorous debate and character development, Power of Sail veers instead into a mixed bag of events — some convenient and far-fetched, others quite thrilling — that unfold like origami.

Seth Numrich

If you’ve been paying attention to the news over recent years, “controversial speakers on college campuses” has been a hot topic. Backed by Twitter mobs, students today — like those predominantly featured off-stage in Power of Sail — are demanding that those spouting what they determine to be “hate speech” (a term often applied to anything outside the bounds of far-left ideologies) must be prevented from being platformed on their campuses. For decades, issues of censorship and banning had most often been viewed as weapons of the right. (The recent Maus controversy in a Tennessee school district, however, shows that that mentality, regrettably, still exists.) But now, calls for “cancellation” and “safe spaces” are most aligned with the left and students themselves. Charlie mocks these “triggered” students for showing up in pj’s and holding pillows for protection from the literal violence and harm they insist such dangerous speech inflicts.

Bryan Cranston

At first blush, Charlie Nichols appears to be the play’s hero. But soon it’s clear he’s not even a beloved antihero. Whatever muddled role he seems to be occupying, he doesn’t act; he reacts. The way a punching bag reacts. When hit by its maker. In fact, one might argue he’s the play’s villain — despised as he is by the playwright. But that means the play’s hero is … who exactly? It’s never clear. Nor is it clear that any character learns or grows. Characters in this story exist solely to serve a carefully constructed plot.

Donna Simone Johnson, Bryan Cranston, and Amy Brenneman

It’s safe to assume that decisions on which speakers to platform — and which ones to create guardrails against — aren’t easy. Such tasks are rife with complexity and biases. Yet, Power of Sail often eschews such complexity and nuance with black-and-white thinking. In fact, it divides its characters down racial lines — and judges them accordingly. The only characters whose hands end up colored … are white. Meanwhile, the two black characters are infantilized as hapless-but-superior victims of enabled “whiteness.” For a play determined to denounce racial supremacy, it blatantly (and shamelessly) uses it to make its point.

Donna Simone Johnson

One of the more cringeworthy scenes is when a black female FBI agent (Donna Simone Johnson) shows up to interview the professor. Regardless of the fact that he has been sitting in his office specifically waiting for her, the minute she shows up—and looking the part, to boot — he begins to walk past her, apparently unaware that she is the person for whom he has been waiting. This appears to be the (white male) playwright’s not-so-subtle dig against white, “cis-het” men — or at least those who promote “more speech;” clearly, they can’t control their racist and sexist “implicit biases,” and are oblivious to the fact that women of color can hold positions of power. (Groan.) Once the agent “corrects” Professor Nichols’ assumed “unconscious biases,” she begins her interview. Her questioning is not professionally neutral in tone, as one would expect, but decidedly unrestrained. In her mind, his actions are so egregious that she is unable to control her personal disdain for him. I don’t know what director Weyni Mengesha was thinking in letting Johnson’s overblown emotions fly. This choice is not only condescending to the character herself, it’s unbelievable. That said, the script is equally as careless in teeing up such ridiculousness.

Bryan Cranston and Amy Brenneman

During the play, I was reminded of the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness. In it, the “social menace” of marijuana wreaks havoc on a town, resulting in all kinds of mayhem and death. In Power of Sail, the modern “social menace” is diversity of speech. (Something that often gets lost to more superficial calls for diversity.) That it misrepresents speech-and-debate on college campuses as vehicles for platforming violent, Holocaust-denying neo-Nazis is unfortunate. Lamentably, it’s not altogether different from how Americans speak about each other. In Power of Sail, as in life, arguments that are reasonable — or, at the very least, worth considering by both the characters and audience alike — are knocked down with “straw men” and ad hominem attacks. The play aligns anyone who holds such views with literal white supremacists and their enablers. It’s lazy writing that sadly reflects the worst of our culture. Instead of truly hearing each other, we brand those holding opposing views as hyperbolic evildoers. You know, Nazis. (It’s easier that way, isn’t it?)

Bryan Cranston and Hugo Armstrong

On a positive note, the cast, by and large, is fantastic. In addition to terrific performances by Cranston and Brenneman, Tedra Millan and Seth Numrich play perfectly layered foils to each other as PhD students with opposing points of view. Brandon Scott plays a celebrity author with traits emblematic of real-life “anti-racist” authors Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi. Hugo Armstrong, in the swirl of chaos, brings much-needed comic relief to the work as the bartender. Grounding all of these players to a common space, Rachel Myers deserves praise. Her revolving set design is intricate and gorgeous, moving us from college campus to the real world orbiting it.

Tedra Millan and Seth Numrich

The intermissionless Power of Sail manages to keep us involved and guessing with each of its unravelings. It also provides plenty to reflect upon with fellow theatergoers. Both of these traits are hallmarks of good art. That said, by attacking actual Holocaust-denying neo-Nazis — and those who provide wind for their primitive sails — it misses an opportunity to wrestle with opposing and heterodox ideologies that are much harder to knock down. That’s the real issue confronting institutions of higher learning — and society at large. The perceived “boogeymen” aren’t full-blown Nazis that Godwin warned us against portraying each other as. Our “boogeymen” (if we can call them that) might just be those scarily rational worldviews that poke holes in our own; views that make us question things we were convinced, until now, we had gotten right. That’s the play we didn’t get.

photos by Jeff Lorch

Power of Sail
Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on March 13, 2022 EXTENDED to March 27, 2022
for tickets, call 310.208.5454 or visit Geffen Playhouse

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