Eureka Day

From left, K.K. Moggie as Meiko, Brian Wiles as Eli, Thomas Jay Ryan as Don, and Tina Benko as Suzanne grapple with anti-vaxxing issues in Jonathan Spector’s satire  Eureka Day.

From left, K.K. Moggie as Meiko, Brian Wiles as Eli, Thomas Jay Ryan as Don, and Tina Benko as Suzanne grapple with anti-vaxxing issues in Jonathan Spector’s satire Eureka Day.

Jonathan Spector’s new play Eureka Day is the unusual satire that takes aim at left-wing politics. It is perhaps the most notable rare bird of its kind since Jonathan Reynolds’s wonderful Stonewall Jackson’s House, which appeared more than 20 years ago. Spector sets his play in Berkeley, Calif., a town whose radical politics have put it at the forefront of social change yet also earned it the nickname Berserkeley.  

At Eureka Day, a private school, board members raise ambivalence to a fine art as they discuss the categories of race that are on the application. A newly proposed category would make a respondent feel “seen,” but, in the view of the vibrant, arm-waving Suzanne (Tina Benko), “some people may with good reason find its inclusion offensive.” Yet her colleague Eli (Brian Wiles), a stay-at-home father who cashed out from a tech company, notes ambivalently, “I just wonder, though, by leaving it off is it possible some people would find its absence offensive … if our core operating principle here is that everyone should feel seen by this community.” Suzanne’s answer is glorious liberal cant: “There’s no benefit in feeling seen if you’re simultaneously being othered.”

Wiles with Elizabeth Carter as Carina. Photographs by Robert Altman.

Wiles with Elizabeth Carter as Carina. Photographs by Robert Altman.

Mostly sitting and listening are the two minorities: Meiko, a Japanese-Caucasian woman and single mother, and Carina, a black lesbian who is the newest member of the board. The fifth member is Don (Thomas Jay Ryan), the amenable, wishy-washy facilitator who heads the school and tries to stay out of the way of hot-button arguments; he ends every session with a quotation from Rumi.

After this introductory scene, the tone shifts. Don has unsettling news from the Alameda County Health Department. A case of mumps has been found at the school, and the health officials want a letter forwarded to parents.

As the committee debates vaccination protocol, the mumps case brings out the worst in them and the centrality of Suzanne’s dilemma, which is the play’s nub: “Just because one family wants something doesn’t make it right for the whole community,” she tells Eli. “This is why we have core values, because it’s always tempting to accommodate the squeaky wheel.” Suzanne, who will eventually find herself a squeaky wheel, is given impassioned speeches that place the play in contemporary society:

I mean have you been reading any of the stories about how the life expectancy among working-class men in the Midwest is plummeting and addiction is skyrocketing, and it’s all from prescription painkillers because the pharmaceutical companies have for years been pushing doctors to prescribe them. … This isn’t fringe. This was in The New Yorker!

The centerpiece of Spector’s play is a hilarious online meeting with parents that doesn’t completely work. As the committee members debate anti-vaxxing and other issues—putting peanuts in lunches, for instance—a screen pings as parents send in their comments, and the wrangling on screen soon obscures the discussion among the live characters.

Lena Birnbaum-Tullstein: How many of you geniuses are aware that vaccines contain E. coli, heavy metals and cells from human fetuses?
Orson Mankel: If my newborn gets mumps, I’m gonna sue you all into your graves.
Arnold Filmore: Orson, are you threatening me?
Guita Lakahni: We’re all threatened by your ANTI-SCIENCE DEATH CULT.

The comically strident screen battles (projections designed by Kate Ducey) underline the inability of social media to maintain decorum and the intractability of the debate. (They could pop out more for faster reading, however.)

Don, Suzanne and Carina are aghast as the online conversation turns acrimonious.

Don, Suzanne and Carina are aghast as the online conversation turns acrimonious.

As the new member, Elizabeth Carter’s Carina is just learning the ropes. Inevitably, she comes into conflict with Suzanne, whose own position, though untenable, receives sympathy in Spector’s balanced script. Meanwhile, there’s a subplot about two board members having an affair—one has an open marriage—and a running gag about it.

Under Colt Coeur artistic director Adrienne Campbell-Holt, the actors’ timing is impeccable. Benko’s Suzanne is a monster of sorts, yet she still elicits empathy. Carter moves from Carina’s initial awkwardness to a place where she finds her truth and sticks to it. Wiles is a jittery Eli, and Ryan makes Don’s ineffectuality both irritating and recognizable. And K.K. Moggie as Meiko, who seems withdrawn at times, reveals some steel before the final moments.

Like the best satire, Eureka Day will provoke discussion and a sense of the real dilemmas of communicating in a deeply divided society. Spector’s mastery of liberal jargon captures the tenor of the left-wing pieties and marks him as a smart new voice in theater.

The Colt Coeur production of Eureka Day runs through Sept. 21 at Walkerspace (46 Walker St., between Broadway and Church). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday and Monday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday. For tickets and more information, visit coltcoeur.org.

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