America develops a climate of fear and the political left falls apart: That's how the glum half of the country seemed to be processing the election news this week. At the same time, Theater J has uncannily opened Jules Feiffer's McCarthy-era reminiscence, "A Bad Friend," in which America develops a climate of fear and the political left falls apart.
The timing was right, yet the play lies flat despite some probing, heartfelt writing by the gifted Feiffer, who spent most of the past 50 years drawing politically and emotionally acute cartoons for the Village Voice. His Brooklyn characters toss around a lot of painfully earnest theory: "A liberal is someone who has his feet firmly planted in midair," declares the zealously progressive Shelly to Rose, his confused, rebellious and merely moderate teenage daughter. Rose's parents argue like riled-up soapbox orators without ever seeming truly grounded by their time, place or each other.
Feiffer is Feiffer, though, which means there are still more than a few odds and ends worth hearing. It's 1953, and Rose's parents dare not even say out loud what they really believe in (communism!). They devour the Daily Worker and adore Stalin; as far as they can tell, the Soviet Union is a much better place for Jews than America, where writers like Rose's Uncle Morty have to pasteurize even their names to get work in Hollywood.
But Rose can't quite buy into her parents' politics. She's tired of being hectored, and she distrusts extremes, especially coming from Mom and Dad. (The prickly adolescent defiance Feiffer summons for Rose is believable, even if it does get a little tiresome to watch her stomp off in a huff again and again.) As Rose escapes to the Brooklyn waterfront, she fends off a handsome young FBI agent and befriends a middle-aged amateur painter named Emil. The guileless girl meets the gentlemanly Emil every week or so, allowing him to stoke her curiosity and accepting when he gives her a copy of Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy."
It's a loaded title, of course, as is "High Noon," a mainstream western with contemporary political secrets that Uncle Morty spells out for the surprised Rose. In the '50s, encoded culture often substituted for open political discourse, but Rose isn't hip to what's happening -- and neither are her parents, who foolishly take news from the Soviet Union at face value.
"A Bad Friend" is a drama of crossed signals, betrayals and naivete; it seems like a cheat that such a promising tale of disillusionment feels so foregone and rather petty in the telling. Feiffer's plotting, especially in the first act, is slack and diffuse, and director Nick Olcott's oddly bland production unfortunately plays right into the script's weaknesses.
Kathleen Geldard's costumes evoke the times aptly enough, but Lewis Folden's blunt, tedious set cruelly strands the actors; there's not much on the stage other than tight bundles of newspapers piled high enough to function as desks or stools. A beige backdrop adds to the maddening neutrality that is unrelieved by occasional projections of the Rosenbergs, Stalin and other figures torn from the era's headlines. Jason Arnold's colorless lighting repeatedly narrows at the ends of keys scenes -- zooming in? close-ups? -- and it begins to seem like a desperate measure, as if no one could think of anything better to do.
The acting is also hard to fathom. As Rose's parents, Valerie Leonard and Jim Jorgensen aren't really inhabiting the family's messy connections and passions, and their language of mid-century Jewish liberalism -- bald Marxism-Leninism, in fact -- sounds alien on the actors' tongues. Playing the velvety Emil, Lawrence Redmond is a whisper too furtive for the truth of the character to be in much doubt, and Peter Wylie seems implausibly green as the G-man dogging Lily Balsen's largely one-note (embattled) Rose.
Field Blauvelt fares better as the outsize Uncle Morty, laughing and fretting with an internalized extravagance that seems appropriate to the pressurized times. It's strange that Blauvelt is the only performer who is convincingly in sync with the drama's treacherous outside world, but that's how it goes in this dishearteningly detached show. "A Bad Friend" may never be really good, but it certainly could have been better.
A Bad Friend, by Jules Feiffer. Directed by Nick Olcott. Approximately two hours and 20 minutes. Through Nov. 28 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.