Right-Hand Man

An ambiguous (or open-ended) finale for a play works when audience members know just enough about the situation at hand and the characters onstage that they can formulate some ideas as to what's taken place and what's to come. In Pygmalion, for example, the reader is not sure if the flower-seller-turned-lady Eliza Doolittle will remain with her misogynistic mentor Henry Higgins or marry the love-struck (but bland) Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Yet enough is discovered about the personalities of these three that her future could merit a discussion. If that information were not as clear, it would not matter what happened to Eliza because the reader would not care enough about her or the other characters to suppose a guess. Indeed, the reader would be angry that George Bernard Shaw did not even bother to provide a conclusion after doing so little work with the characterization.

In Hard Right, David Barth's new play "set on the eve of the age of terror," a mysterious agent with unclear intentions disrupts what ought to be a quiet meet-the-folks evening for college student Henry, his girlfriend Greta, and Henry's parents, Barbara and Phil. It's not too much of a spoiler to say that the agent's objective is never spelled out. However, the author has dropped enough clues as to the nature of the family, the agent (Bob), and his mission that the observant theatergoer will be intrigued by this twisted, cautionary tale.

Being observant is, after all, the first running theme in this intense, intermission-less production. Well-to-do couple Barbara and Phil start things off by pacing around their tastefully decorated living room, waiting for sundown so they can break their Yom Kippur fast. They are also waiting for Henry, who's coming home from college with Greta so she can get to know his parents. As Barbara and Phil talk about trying to be more spiritual while also counting down the minutes until they can eat, two FedEx packages are left at the door. One is for their son, and one is for them; the latter is a letter from Henry's college (vaguely referred to as "State") informing them that a representative from the school will be stopping by the house to discuss certain changes in policy that affect scholars like Henry.

The son then appears, a tousle-haired, surfer-type blond (without the surfer speech) made hungry and paranoid by pot and booze, accompanied by his nose-ringed but more or less clean-cut girlfriend. As parents and girlfriend cautiously try to interact without upsetting the moody Henry, there is a knock at the door. Behind it is Bob, who introduces himself as the school representative. He is a tall man dressed in a bright blue windbreaker, khakis, and new white shoes. Observant (or maybe just suspicious) audience members may recognize this apparel as the kind that one wears when you don't want your face to be remembered later.

At first, Bob asks Henry gently probing questions, which Henry answers flippantly. Like many young college students, Henry has no major, no direction, and generally mistrusts the government (yet has only front-page news facts to support his mistrust). Bob responds negatively to Henry's ambiguity, and their surface cordiality quickly falls away.

To describe more of the plot points would take away the shock and surprise that's integral to the story. It should be said, however, that playwright David Barth does an excellent job of scripting the beginning of the show in such a way that when things turn dark, early foreshadowing allows the change in tone to occur without it being either predictable or unbelievable. The cast, as well, adopts a naturalistic style that sells the earlier moments very well. (The only thing that they didn't do so convincingly was portray "members of the tribe"; mother and son especially were a bit too Aryan-looking for this Jewish reviewer's eyes.)

And it certainly doesn't hurt the suspension of disbelief when actors are working on a set as beautifully designed and executed as this one, created by Mark Cruzan. Tasteful pieces, art that brightens walls without pulling focus, and a fully furnished room are all evidence of a designer's touch. It makes for a nice change from the poorly planned sets, decorated with scavenged card tables and mismatched chairs, that are the hallmark of amateur set dressers (and many Off-Off-Broadway productions).

In the end, the audience and the characters never get a read on Bob's true intentions. He represents the kind of nameless, faceless terror that always lurks in the world—a terror that gets a new name and face for every president and democracy-threatening crisis. All we can see are the bright blue windbreaker, the khakis, and the new white shoes. All we know is that we don't know what he's capable of, and when he'll strike.

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