Weird Lingerers: The “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” plot their battles at Playwrights Horizons

Photo by Joan Marcus

When was the last time you weathered a two hour conversation with someone you fundamentally didn’t agree with? To be fair, this isn’t exactly what takes place while experiencing Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Playwright’s Horizons (through October 27th). It’s more like being a bystander overhearing a two-hour conversation between a group of people you fundamentally don’t agree with.

This particular group is comprised of Justin, the gun-toting host of the party (astutely played by Jeb Kreager), crunches-bound Emily, who seems to be experiencing things at a different pace than the rest (played by Julia McDermott), whiskey-drunk Kevin, who stumbles around asking faith-and-soul baring questions he shouldn’t be asking (John Zdrojeski), and the uber-confident Teresa (Zoë Winters), for whom every conversation is a pile of dry kindling awaiting her flame thrower of rhetoric. They are joined, later in the evening, by Emily’s mother Gina (a wry Michele Pawk), in whose honor the party has been thrown. Gina has been inaugurated as the new president of the Transfiguration College of Wyoming, and this is the dwindling remains of her celebration. We’re in the back yard watching some of her former students (at one point described by one character to another as the “weird lingerers”, the ones who are left last at the party) banter, catch up, and, in Kevin’s case, throw up.

If you watch closely, you become aware of the makings of a shifting love triangle and begin to track which of these lingerers still holds a torch for the other. Kevin is desperate for any affection whatsoever. Teresa is engaged and lives on the east coast, but seems to still have interest in Justin. Justin has assumed the role of Emily’s care-taker, but it’s unclear as to what that means, on a romantic level anyway. The play orchestrates their interactions in real time through the deepening night, making almost-comic use of the dark exterior corner of Justin’s house, where characters can disappear to pee or wander around to the front side where one assumes the cars are parked. That darkness also provides a place to hide, lurk, and over-hear until the play serves them the most intrusive or explosive moment to re-enter. There’s also a very loud sound that intrudes at several points, explained away by Justin as a generator malfunction, but it’s obviously… not. It sounds more like God running Kevin’s busted-up Camry through a galactic waste disposal.

Blanketing these more subtle character traits is a roiling surface of fervid argument, mostly led by Teresa, who by virtue of coming from the East Coast has formulated a theory for what’s about to happen. First, she declares, a war is coming. Then she breaks down, in great detail, the generational cycles that have brought them, as particulars, to this precise place and time, and what role they are to play – they will be the heroes, fighting bravely in a time of peak crisis.

So far so good? We’ve seen something like it before. Except this. They’re all deeply conservative Catholic intellectuals. We – the audience, at least based on who one expects is in the audience in New York City in the year 2019 – are their sworn enemy. We’re the ones they are declaring war upon. We are the “abortionists,” as Teresa venomously explains when Emily tries to stand up for her nice friend who happens to be a liberal and works for Planned Parenthood. And we’re not there, in this play, to defend ourselves. We have no choice but to listen, and listen, and listen.

For a good deal of the time, this experience is engagingly bracing. To the great credit of the writer, the excellent actors, and director (Danya Taymor), we are given something complicated to wrestle with. These are versions of people that the playwright Will Arbery grew up around – professors, teachers, thinkers of the right. They hate Trump too, even if they cast their vote for him. Their arguments, while sometimes hate-filled, are lucidly formed and difficult to penetrate. There’s a weird thrill of uncomfortable relief when we find ourselves half-agreeing with them. I spent a good deal of mental energy attempting to mount an imaginary internal counter-argument while witnessing their various sparring sessions, as though allowing their “truth” to stand unchallenged was a threat to my own integrity, even within the confines and privacy of my own mind.

So, on a civic/political level, it’s invigorating to be forced into this encounter with the “other.” The play does run into trouble as a piece of durational theater, though. Once you’ve burned through the oppositional energy it takes to absorb and internally combat the political and philosophical arguments, often brilliantly stated, there isn’t much left in reserve to sustain the play’s multiple complications and turnings. The onstage characters are burning through the oxygen a monologue at a time, and all that exhaled CO2 – toxic, like much of the content – makes the onstage darkness all the more murky.

I get the sense that Arbery knows the disturbing power these arguments possess – he’s been there himself, and wants to share that experience, for better or worse. In doing so, he’s reluctant to leave anything out. Each argument that the characters make must be fully fleshed out, each philosopher name-dropped a few times, so that it isn’t easy for us to dismiss these folks, much as we’d like to. It’s an admirable and bold approach. But – a crucial but, given the form – this erudite world of argument somewhat overwhelms the more delicate set-ups of this post-party backyard get together. When the arguments extend beyond what’s technically necessary in a group of like-minded individuals, they risk redundancy (even if we the audience, hearing them for the first time, benefit intellectually from getting the whole spiel).

To compensate, the director Taymor has dialed the dialogue up to hyper-speed, which functions early on and grows aesthetically questionable as the play progresses. As our tolerance for meaningful interrogation ebbs and wanes, the play’s non-political mechanisms need to take over. Instead, there’s a series of mysterious shifts near the end, one regarding that impossible sound that keeps interrupting the action, and a transformational monologue. Both feel like they change the rules in some way. We’ve been too distracted by the politics to say exactly how. When the disturbances are made literal, they seem almost beside the point.

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