Our smarty-pants grad students toast themselves for making a difference each time. From left, Mathew A. Schrader, Emily Mills and Odari McWhorter.
It's almost eerie that a play about extreme political rhetoric and vitriol would open just two weeks after the terrible shootings in Tucson. At the Bartell Theatre, Mercury Players Theatre presents the dark comedy The Last Supper, which Dan Rosen adapted from his screenplay of the same name. Rosen updated that 1995 movie starring Cameron Diaz and pre-Big Love Bill Paxton specifically for this production and it reflects the current political climate and players (even tossing in a reference to the Feingold campaign).
Five lefty graduate students in Iowa City gather for weekly dinners to revel in their shared (and sometimes smug) world view. The first dinner we witness ignites a surprising shared mission when one of the students invites the truck driver who offered him roadside assistance to join them. This young man, a patriotic Desert Storm vet, first startles the group when he insists on saying grace before the vegan meal and then goes on to praise Hitler, alarming and repulsing the other dinners. Threats and violence ensue, and one of the hosts stabs him.
As he lies bleeding on an area rug, the quintet, after some debate and initial hand-wringing, decide that they have done society a favor by eliminating him and silencing his dangerous words. They also decide that since participating in protests and sit-ins has been a futile way to fight the power, this new dinner party/murder method may be a more effective technique in coping with right-wing adversaries.
Soon a parade of special guests is invited to dine, and when their dinner conversation proves repellent, they are given poisoned wine and buried in the backyard. Our smarty-pants grad students toast themselves for making a difference each time and feel vindicated when they learn that their first victim, the trucker, was implicated in a heinous crime. The death toll grows, and the tomato plants seen through the patio door flourish.
Rosen is a savvy wordsmith whose political and pop culture references are smart and thought-provoking. Nick Kaprelian plays the damaged vet Zach with a quiet menace and brings things to a boil in a believable way. Emily Mills as Jude is particularly good. With her pixie cut, direct gaze and tart tongue she captures just the right acerbic tone. Odari McWhorter as Luke is stronger and more confident in this role than in other productions I've seen. He gets downright scary and overzealous in achieving his goals. Susan Levin as Paulie is initially the most remorseful and reticent, but quickly adapts a take-no-prisoners style of dealing with dinner guests. She is especially repulsed by the Reverend Gerald (Jake Jacobson, spewing hateful statements about gays in mellifluous tones before his spectacular, red-faced demise) and Todd (a "menimist" misogynist classmate played with the right blend of creepy and pathetic by Paul Lorentz).
At the opening of the play and between dinner scenes, a brash pundit, Norman Arbuthnot (the excellent and charismatic Christopher Younggren), is shown on the large flat-screen TV. These clever video segments are spot-on in their Fox News look and feel. When a chance meeting at an airport on a stormy night brings Norman to the head of the table, he surprises his hosts by being quite reasonable and more moderate in his views. Suddenly they aren't so sure about doing him in, but I won't spoil the ending.
Douglas Holtz directs this production with self-assurance. He has a great ear for the dialogue and a keen eye for detail, doing impressive double duty as set designer of a good-looking and functioning household. My biggest complaint is that there are just a few too many dinner/death scenes, so things get a little bogged down, especially since the fleet-footed and steady stage hands have lots of work to do each time.
I've seen interesting and compelling work from Mercury Players Theatre before at the MercLab space, but this performance at the Bartell Theatre of a play about really listening, and not just talking, heralds a new maturity and authoritative presence.