So, how did I like the play?
I'm referring of course to The Last Supper, the Mercury Players Theater production that has ignited a bit of controversy here in Madison. I'm partly responsible for that, since I left the first comment at an Isthmus review of the play which was then linked in a post by über-blogger Ann Althouse. This led to a follow up by Emily Mills, a rejoinder by Dave Blaska, and several related links across the blogosphere.
Somewhere along the way, I was graciously invited to see the play for free, on the condition that if I changed my opinion I would make a donation to Mercury Players Theater.
My gut reaction to The Last Supper (after reading the review, but before seeing the actual play) was not positive. In fact, I wrote that it "sounds like revolting drivel." Well, now that I've seen the play, my informed and considered opinion is that it's drivel all right, but Dan Rosen isn't a good enough playwright to provoke revulsion. The Last Supper is an insipid, tendentious bore, with about as much complexity as Cheese Whiz smeared on week-old saltine.
Before I explain why, let me be clear about what I was looking for when I went into the theater. I wanted to evaluate this play on its artistic merits and not its political perspective. Believe it or not, I don't find this difficult; for example, I like and admire nearly all the films on this list of the top 25 left-wing movies of all time (compiled by conservative film critic John Nolte).
Most importantly, I was curious whether Rosen's characters were "round," or multi-faceted, with conflicting characteristics. In any play, movie or novel, only round characters have the capacity to grow and surprise audiences in a plausible way. Round characters are also more true to life, since every human being is a bundle of contradictions where good and evil fight it out every day. Is that battle evident in The Last Supper's characters?
On a related note, does Rosen try to understand what makes his villains tick? Does he show respect -- even grudging admiration -- for characters he clearly despises?
Not by a long shot (spoilers to follow). There are six conservative characters in the play. Of them, five are little more than receptacles for a particular political idea the playwright finds disgusting. Every one of these characters is also literally unbelievable in terms of crudeness and stupidity.
The dialogue between the lefty grad students and these conservative adversaries is also about as subtle as a flying mallet. These conversations are the heart of the play and lead to the murder of four of the five grotesque conservative thugs; only a seventeen-year old girl promoting abstinence is deemed too young to kill (kind of like not imposing the death penalty on minors, I suppose).
How stupid are these dramatic set-ups? This stupid: One of the victims is a woman who runs a popular website devoted to killing Stephanie Meyer, because she writes about vampires and is a Mormon. If that strikes you as a realistic reflection of our times, you need to get out more.
There is one exception to the conservative-as-moron rule: a right-wing commentator named Norman modeled on Rush Limbaugh, who ends up (preposterously) accepting a dinner invitation with students he's never met before when his plane gets stranded in Iowa because of weather.
We have the playwright's own word that this figure is based on Limbaugh, since the "Playwright's Note" in the playbill asks: "What would [Limbaugh] be like if I met him in person over a drink or a meal? Would he let me in on the big joke with a wink? Would he apologize for all the hatred and harm he had brought into the once semi-dignified world of political punditry? And most importantly, would I be able to outsmart him? If not, would I have the nerve to poison the son of a bitch?"
The answer is -- Norman/Limbaugh lets you in on the joke. He doesn't believe the crap he spews (which again is literally unbelievable; for example, we see the Limbaugh stand-in say he chokes up every time he hears the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, even though it was written by a French, Jewish lesbian). But he doesn't apologize for it either, because he's just trying to make a name for himself, and a buck.
It turns out that Norman is smart, clever and even more eloquent than his grad student adversaries, and he ultimately turns the tables on them. He doesn't believe his own bullshit, but he is an eager purveyor of the Big Lie, which his brain-dead followers lap up as if it is Gospel truth.
Because the conservative characters in The Last Supper are so stilted and one-dimensional (Norman is perhaps two-dimensional), it is impossible to take seriously on dramatic and artistic terms. The play is not a simple revenge fantasy, but it does have a simplistic message, which is: the Left is smart but sometimes a little too clever, and it can end up believing its own bullshit; the Right is a horde of idiots, mindlessly following religious and media authority because it is too stupid to think for itself.
This is not a challenging or provocative message; nor is it, as the Isthmus reviewer concluded, a "new maturity." If this wisdom was any more conventional, it would be a plank in a party platform. Go to the Daily Kos, and on any given day you'll find commentators mocking the "sheeple" who vote Republican. Or you can read the more high-minded commentators asking, "What's Wrong With Kansas?," symbolic of the millions of voters too stupid to recognize their material interests because they're blinded by the Right's "framing" of events and distracted by social issues.
There is nothing more ingrained in the Leftist mind than the belief that they are the smart ones and their opponents stupid, and The Last Supper reinforces that prejudice from beginning to end. Ironically, this is the opposite of the independent, thought-provoking art some viewers no doubt walk out of the theater thinking they've witnessed.
Ultimately, this is the fault of the playwright, Dan Rosen. By his own admission, he started writing the play because he was pissed off by current events, and he pretty much ended there too. The Last Supper is animated by an angry, hate-filled impulse and confined by Rosen's simplistic, Manichean worldview. This flattened perspective prevents him from sympathetic understanding of characters he finds disagreeable, and his play becomes a screechy, strident cartoon -- little more than one guy sitting in his living room, screaming at Fox News.
I'm genuinely disappointed that I can't donate to Mercury Players Theater after seeing the play. There were some redeeming qualities, to be sure: Christopher Younggren was very effective as Norman, and Emily Mills is an arresting stage presence. I wanted to like it, but unfortunately my gut instinct was confirmed.
If readers are interested in a far better exploration of what happens when people start believing their own bullshit, rent A Simple Plan on Netflix instead. I'll be back for future Mercury Theater Players plays, but I won't be able to forget the artistic and intellectual catastrophe of The Last Supper soon enough.
Larry Kaufmann is a Madison-based economic consultant who also blogs about pop culture at Yeah Right.