Ever since Donald Trump stormed the White House, basically every major news outlet has spent valuable time and resources exploring the psychology of his voters.
Inevitably traveling to the midwest of America — you know, because Trump voters ONLY live in flyover states — these pieces strive to understand why his supporters don’t mind his vulgar brand of hatred. Most journalistic deep dives into this administration also try to unpack the workings of Trump’s mind, attempting to make some sense of the seemingly senseless.
In this sociopolitical context, Cyprus Avenue feels like an affront to the fundamental notion of these approaches, that such ignorance can even be rooted in discoverable, comprehensible logic. It revolves around a Trumpian figure, searingly embodied by Stephen Rea, whose fearful response to a new world order that he’s no longer the de-facto leader of inspires him to assert his regressive dominance over his small world. His politics do not conform to the progress of identity politics, thus he preserves his retrograde worldview by insisting on defining his identity through othering everyone who could be seen as different from himself, which quickly becomes basically everyone in his life.
Yet unlike the mainstream media, David Ireland’s new play, which the Public Theater imported from London’s Royal Court and Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, realizes that, sometimes, there’s no method to such madness. These self-styled victims might spout, as Rea does throughout, regurgitated justifications for their discrimination. But at the end of the day, the only explanation for insane intolerance is, in fact, a sort of clinical insanity.
But this rationale, however accurate it may be, creates some dramaturgical problems. Namely: good drama tends to resonantly plumb the depths of its characters’ psychology. The minute the audience realizes that swimming into these depths won’t lead to cogent insights, but will rather leave them flailing in the water — which is admittedly an insight in itself — they’re liable to check out.
Another component hindering sufficient immersion in the proceedings: Stephen Rea’s intentionally unlikable from the start. Past explorations of such immoral men commonly focus on exposing their charm in order to reveal why they can get away with such abhorrent behavior; think Richard III, who charismatically sweeps the audience away by transforming them into enjoyable accomplices to his dastardly deeds. How can something so wrong feel so right? But glorifying such personalities can be easily misunderstood by undiscerning audiences, ultimately perpetuating the dispositions these plays are in fact deconstructing. Plus, a lot of times shitty people are just shitty from their surface to their core. That’s Rea’s take on the character, and he nails it.
Vicky Featherstone’s production aims to counteract these deliberately-alienating decisions by maintaining the audience’s interest through humor, a maneuver that threatens to offend given the seriousness of the subject matter. Perhaps being aware of this danger, Ireland restrains the bounds of his comedy, merely dipping his toes in those waters instead of diving headfirst into the extreme side of the pool.
The resulting deficit in laughter doesn’t just prevent the audience from engaging throughout; it also fails to hammer home one of the play’s most important messages. By design, the chuckles are supposed to transition to horror, a bait-and-switch turned against the audience reminding them that finding the craziness of Trump’s more-harmless shenanigans (and those like him) even moderately amusing underestimates how quickly comedy can turn into tragedy (almost bordering on the theatre of cruelty by its conclusion). Treating any part of such vulgarity as nothing more than a joke, and as anything less than a grave harbinger of the damage they’re capable of inflicting, can usher in devastating consequences.
Without effective comedy, the eventual tragedy of Cyprus Avenue doesn’t hit home like the violent hammer it should be.
But along the way, it touches upon rather intriguing ideas. More on those tomorrow.