Karl Marx is in the house, and the gleam in his eye says, “I told you so.” The show is “Marx in Soho,” but the vibe is pure Washington throughout the fierce political diatribe unfolding in a small art gallery near the White House.
“Do you resent my coming back and irritating you?” Marx says at the end of a 90-minute rip through his life, his theories and — thanks to a whimsical bit of time-travel — our own class-driven discontents. That this is opening as Congress wrestles over capitalist free-market principles (a.k.a. “choice”) and national health-care policy makes the moment especially rich.
“Marx in Soho” is a 1999 solo play by the late firebrand leftist historian Howard Zinn, who still so incenses some conservatives that a new bill in the Arkansas legislature — H.B. 1834 — has been introduced to ban “books or any other material authored by or concerning Howard Zinn” from public schools. That would include the text of this fervently performed piece that’s the most effective show I’ve seen from the emerging Nu Sass Productions.
Marx is played by Mary Myers, who thoroughly convinces you that she knows each historical twist and theoretical turn in this monologue. It undervalues Myers to say she commands the living-room-size Caos on F, with seating for 30. Yet command it she does, roving the space as her Marx recalls writing “Das Kapital” while observing the rising rift between workers and industrialists in London’s Soho district. Myers looks you in the eye and expects answers whenever she asks questions. Her lively give-and-take brings wit and personality to what could be a highly wonky talk.
After all, this is Marx, who rhapsodizes over the 1871 Paris Commune and blusters about his arguments with the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. But there also are tender passages about his wife, Jenny, and daughter Eleanor, both apparently incisive critics. These are strands of feeling that Myers — who never loses her crisp intellectual edge — plays compellingly.
But of course this is mainly an indictment, an act of solidarity with specific recent movements that this 1999 script could not have anticipated, from Occupy to whatever the current notion of “resistance” is. Director Angela Kay Pirko underlines this resonance with torn-from-the-
headlines images on screens neatly camouflaged among bookshelves. These images are so small you almost miss them.
That’s okay: Myers gets the point across, jabbing her finger at you, shouting about how the outrageous crimes of Stalin and other dictators have wrecked his (Marx’s) reputation, and still insisting that we examine our own situation frankly. You understand completely that if this Marx knew whom Americans had just elected to the Oval Office, his head would explode.
A block away on another small stage, Irish writer Fiona Doyle’s earthy 2014 “Coolatully” is dramatizing another economics lesson as her nation’s roaring Celtic Tiger period whimpered into something close to depression. The stress is eating the locals alive, especially young Kilian. The former hurling hero is now a twitchy, brooding mess — can’t find work, doesn’t want to emigrate like the rest of his generation.
Solas Nua, D.C.’s Irish arts organization, puts a melancholy air on this U.S. premiere, directed by Solas Nua head Rex Daugherty in Flashpoint’s 50-seat Mead Theatre Lab. David Mavricos is morose and hangdog as Kilian, but the more interesting figures are the nurse Eilish (a sensible Jenny Donovan), who is leaving for work in Australia, and the wild lad Paudie (the bright Kiernan McGowan), just out of jail for petty theft from a church. Brian Hemmingsen persuasively finds the pathos and the power in a weakened, agitated pensioner with his savings tucked under his floorboards.
Doyle’s plot isn’t fresh, but her details keep you interested as these withering working-class characters fret about how jobs have dried up and how it’s key to get a visa for the opportunities in Australia, Canada or New Zealand.
Solas Nua and Nu Sass didn’t team up to time “Coolatully” and “Marx in Soho” together, yet these allied plays add up to a natural double bill.
Marx in Soho, by Howard Zinn. Directed by Angela Kay Pirko. About 90 minutes. Through April 2 at Caos on F, 923 F St. NW. Tickets: $30. Call 315-783-6650 or visit nusass.com.
Coolatully, by Fiona Doyle. Directed by Rex Daugherty. About 100 minutes. Through March 26 at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. Tickets: $38. Call 202-315-1317 or visit solasnua.org.