The End of the World With Symposium
Written by Arthur Kopit
Directed by Richard Foreman
At the American Repertory Theatre through January
FROM TITLE to finish, there's little subtlety in The End of the World With Symposium To Follow. Under glaring lights, actors hyper-project their lines. Buzzers and phones eerily ring out at startling volumes. At one point, the central character, playwright Michael Trent (Ken Howard), literally bangs a drum to pound his message across.
If ever a subject demanded this treatment, though, Arthur Kopit '59 has hit upon it. In this play, his most autobiographical to date, Kopit confronts the unthinkable, the day of doom threatened by nuclear weaponry. The result is a surprisingly even-handed scenario despite the potentially heavy-handed enterprise. With the kinetic staging of avant-garde director Richard Foreman, the A.R.T. production is powerful and provoking.
Kopit has certainly dramatized some weighty matter in the past--genocide (Indians), stroke victims (Wings), and dead fathers (the classic Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad). But nuclear holocaust is of a whole other dimension, and Kopit here chooses to take a personal approach.
Thus with The End..., we watch (listen carefully) a play about a playwright trying to write about a play about the nuclear issue. In the first moments, Michael Trent is approached by a very wealthy mystery man named Philip Stone (Jeremy Geidt), who has devised a brief dramatic outline concerning nuclear war. He offers Trent a huge commission to base a play upon it. With stern eyes and a solemn bearing, Geidt is wonderfully menacing as he compels the confused playwright to take on the task. As Trent, Howard displays a suitably messy mixture of opportunism, hesitation, and curiosity.
Kopit's central metaphor is that of the playwright as detective. Soon enough, Trent's curiosity defeats his hesitation. In a Philip Marlowe trenchcoat, Trent dutifully goes to Washington to search for clues. But the confusion only gets worse as he tries to discover the logic of nuclear policy, as well as why Stone has chosen him for the commission.
This "mystery-play" device, though not particularly clever, nevertheless pulls us through the maze-like plot and through the dizzying Nukespeak of the D.C. policymakers. Indeed, one of the strong points of Kopit's script is his dead-accurate ear for the language and argumentation of Pentagon people.
General Wilmer (Ted Kazanoff), and the two friendly Wargame strategists, Jim (John Bottoms) and Pete (Richard Grusin), are especially well-played; revelling in the paradoxes of deterrence, they present an amusing but chilling spectacle.
Kopit, however, isn't content with merely showing us the familiar Dr. Strangelove crew of zanies. He also makes intriguing suggestions about curiosity and the allure of the vision of the ultimate catastrophe. Foreman's eerie, often surreal staging captures the sense of this fatal desire.
Kopit's play about the unwinnable war, the unthinkable fate, is not quite an unmissable event. Occasionally, what lacks subtlety becomes overbearing, as with Ken Howard's performance. More frequently, though, the production is an eloquent, moving one. Hardly a worstcase scenario.