There’s been no shortage of blame on the Left since Trump’s stinging victory in November. Everyone’s got a pet scapegoat, but nearly all can agree that the Democrats lost in part because they’ve turned their backs on the white working class. The gulf between elites and plebs has never seemed so stark. Into this fraught debate wades Jeff Talbott’s new primal scream of a play, The Gravedigger’s Lullaby. It’s is an interesting tonal shift for Talbott, whose previous play, The Submission, was a knowing, winking story of liberal hypocrisy in the theater. His new work, populated by decidedly un-theatrical, salt-of-the-earth types, is an empathetic attempt to reach across the aisle. It’s an Age of Obama play in the Age of Trump that endeavors to restore the dignity of the working class.
Baylen (Ted Koch), like his father before him, is a gravedigger who lives and works at “the edge of the city” in Anytown, USA. The time period is “Not now. Before,” but it’s far enough in the past that graves are still dug by shovel, and townspeople still rely on the local merchant for their groceries. Baylen and his wife, Margot (KK Moggie), are raising their baby on the pittance they can scrape together from Baylen’s digging and the few loads of laundry Margot manages to take in. The weather vane atop their shack speaks to better days in the past, but now there’s barely enough to eat, and threadbare blankets suspended from the ceiling delineate the rooms.
A grave is the only other element besides the house on Wilson Chin’s set of wood and dirt, and Baylen lumbers between the two in a Sisyphean cycle from punishing labor in the hot sun with his loudmouthed, blasphemous friend Gizzer (Todd Lawson) to sleepless nights with a choleric baby and back again. A graveyard encounter with the bourgeois heir Charles Timmens (Jeremy Beck), who will soon reluctantly inherit responsibility for the “merc” from his dying father, provides Baylen with the smallest glimmer of hope in his otherwise grim nonexistence.
Baylen is like a smarter, softer Yank from O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (which, coincidentally, begins performances at the Park Avenue Armory next week). But where Yank is a knuckle-dragger hurricaning through Manhattan’s cultural strata, Baylen is a dormant volcano, held in check by his piety and compassion. Gizzer, on the other hand, shows little restraint of any kind. He has personal reasons for hating the Timmens family, and by extension the entire owner class. Though Baylen doesn’t share Gizzer’s righteous anger, he is just thoughtful enough to want more and sufficiently self-aware to know that he’ll never get it.
The Gravedigger’s Lullaby ostensibly gives Baylen and Charles equal opportunity to air their class grievances, but it’s clear where the play’s sympathies lie. Charles is kindhearted, yet piles indignity upon indignity on Baylen, whose independent mind is nearly enough to disqualify him from employment. Yet Talbott is a canny playwright, and Baylen is no cardboard saint. His desperation to rise above turns him into an echo of Charles’s bullying father, guilting and manipulating Charles for his own ends. At home, he’s quick-tempered with Margot and has almost no contact with his daughter. Koch’s kind features belie Baylen’s turmoil, but stark yellow toplights from designer Matthew Richards throw brutish shadows across his brow, [reminding us of the latent darkness inside.
That darkness threatens to turn unforgivably violent near the end of the play, but Talbott steps back from the edge of the abyss, and what could have been a great contemporary tragedy becomes a kid-glove exercise in back-patting liberal self-congratulation. Despite good intentions and passages of real lyrical humanism, the play ends up making the same mistakes as the Left: it adopts a condescending pose toward the working class, on the one hand couching their lived experience as one of unrelenting bleakness, denying them any sort of verve or dynamism outside of class struggle, while on the other absolving itself of any real guilt or complicity in their circumstances.
Jenn Thompson’s direction is energetic and precise, and the acting is strong almost across the board (Lawson can never quite nail Gizzer’s nihilistic joie de vivre, while Moggie does fine work in a poised but underwritten role), but in the end the play reinforces the very cultural narratives it purports to dismantle. The working class never lost its dignity; too many have simply refused to acknowledge it. The Gravedigger’s Lullaby deserves praise for trying to shine a light from Theatre Row into the homes of the dispossessed, but it’s ultimately too patronizing and solipsistic to even cross the Hudson.
TACT’s production of Jeff Talbott’s The Gravedigger’s Lullaby plays at the Beckett Theatre (Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St.), through April 1. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, with an additional matinee at 2 p.m. on March 29. For tickets and information, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit telecharge.com.