It’s 1969, and the time is ripe to start the world anew. In a fleabag house in upstate New York, three unwashed young middle-class dropouts with a Viet Cong flag hanging in their living room have formed a collective that is finally going to smash the capitalist, racist war state and usher in a profit-rejecting, all-sharing, free-love paradise. It’s a pity that the collective can’t seem to do anything about those dirty dishes piling up in the sink, though. And too bad that two friends of theirs seem to have blown themselves up trying to rob a bank.
It’s sport to watch the Left be hoist with its own petard in Days of Rage, an acutely observed Off Broadway play by Steven Levenson (at the Second Stage Theater’s Tony Kiser Theater in midtown Manhattan through November 25) that amounts to a satiric napalming of the hard Left. The play’s voice of reason, a mild-mannered black 22-year-old named Hal who works at Sears (denounced by the others for selling appliances from the nefarious General Electric), actually has a brother fighting in Vietnam but fails to see how blowing up banks is going to bring him home. Nor does he understand how it’s a great idea for Jenny (Lauren Patten), one of the three radicals in the collective whom he meets when she tries to shove pamphlets in his hand outside his workplace, to continue sleeping with her SDS roommate Spence (Mike Faist) while he’s also sleeping with the third member of their collective, Quinn (Odessa Young). Monogamy is square, we learn, because it’s all tied up with capitalist oppression, or something. Yet each of the three is simmering with sexual jealousy about the others’ hookups, even more so when a third girl, a brainless runaway named Peggy (Tavi Gevinson), moves in and also beds down with Spence. Ordinarily this particular collective is closed to outsiders, but Peggy has $2,000 of unexplained provenance in her suitcase and nobody else has figured out a way to make social agitation pay the rent.
Days of Rage has been sitting on the shelf for a few years but is being staged now, with tight direction by Trip Cullman, because Levenson (who wrote the book for the hit musical Dear Evan Hansen) has made a name for himself and because the play is suddenly if obliquely timely: It’s a sharply funny commentary on a period when young people are getting the socialist itch again, becoming increasingly marchy and shouty in the process. Ordinarily a play that promises to be urgently of the moment is rubbish that panders to the Left, but Days of Rage is a brisk rap on the knuckles to the Sandersistas muttering that “the system has failed” and it’s time to “take to the streets” because only “direct action,” not dreary bourgeois concepts such as voting, can possibly save us from the bad men.
I knew Days of Rage was interesting before I saw it, because Levenson’s counter-revolutionary satire earned him a stern rebuke from the New York Times, which complained that the play’s “young radicals who believe themselves to be fighting injustice are shown to be fools — and worse,” that it “seems to suggest that the entire antiwar movement, or at least its radical fringe, was an adolescent tantrum,” and that its Viet Cong–worshiping activists should be given credit for being “the ones who were willing to reopen the question of how America should function” before concluding that if such radicals were delusional they were a lot like President Trump. (“Foolish they may have been: paranoid, grandiose and rigid in their thinking. But who does that sound like today?”) A play that somehow managed to equate young Maoists with Trump would have been more to the Times’ taste.
It must be especially irritating to the latte leftists in the Times community that the revolutionaries in the play speak with horror of how the mission to smash capitalism has been sabotaged by the white working class, which seems to like its toasters and Buicks, and that the only reasonable person in the play is a black man who insists that neither he nor his brother, who voluntarily enlisted in the army out of a sense of duty, is oppressed by the American system. Of racism, he says, “I had no idea it was even a problem before I talked to” the radicals. When Jenny, self-flagellating, pleads to him that she is guilty of racism like everyone else, he drily replies, “Great!” Told that his brother is “a black man being used by the white man to kill the yellow man,” he says, “I’ll let him know.”
Crucially, Hal’s dismissal of the collective’s batty plan to save the world with “activism” is a product of his stable personality, which in turn is tied up with a secure family structure: In his early twenties, he still lives with his parents, but the other four all suffered devastating ruptures with their parents. Like many a revolutionary before them, they were empty vessels who filled themselves with absurd, inchoate disgust with how things work. As Hal is the only character who ever cracks a joke, the others accuse him of not taking things seriously. “I’d say it’s the opposite,” he replies. Those five words lay bare the essential nature of the bourgeois-bolshie mentality: It’s so disconnected from reality as to be farcical.