Shipwreck: Artificial Intelligence

The cast of "Shipwreck," a play written for the stage by Anne Washburn but adapted for podcast by director Saheem Ali, in rehearsal.
The Public Theater

Perhaps it’s a question of timing. Perhaps it’s the medium. Perhaps it’s the consequence of an unchecked pandemic. Or maybe it’s the pervasive exhaustion over this political season’s strident atmosphere — from all sides — with its unrelenting celebration of opinion and biases in place of facts.

For these, and probably several other reasons, the podcast version of Anne Washburn’s play “Shipwreck,” now available from the Public Theater, is a frustrating and depressing affair. Notwithstanding its noble intentions to satirize liberal pomposity and outrage in the age of Trump, interspersed with surreal imagined scenes between James Comey and Trump and George W. Bush and Trump, listening to the three-part, nearly three-hour play leaves one feeling more browbeaten than enlightened.

The play, intended to be presented live by The Public, would likely be more successful on stage. It was first presented earlier this year by Washington, DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where it was enthusiastically reviewed, notably for the visual theatricality, which, of course, is missing in a podcast. The drawback of the medium is also that there is often a lack of clarity about the relationships among characters and even over which character is speaking.

Anne Washburn’s would-be satire of the Trump administration falls short as a podcast

Washburn has called this a “History Play of 2017.” It involves several couples who arrive at an upstate New York farm for a weekend. They get snowed in without too much food. Conversation and argument. Because they are liberal, privileged, and relatively — maybe exceedingly — affluent, the talk turns to the political climate. Therein lies the piece’s inherent problem — it is very, very talky. Washburn doesn’t really create fair argument as Shaw did or Matthew Lopez did in “The Inheritance.” Rather her characters talk in set pieces of political opinion they hurl about. These discourses lack depth, nuance, or individuality, leaving no reason to care about any of the characters as people. One can be harangued by ignorant, bloviating “experts” simply by switching on the news these days.

Why are we supposed to care about Allie who spends virtually the entire play in a kind of self-important mania about why no one is responding to her tweets to get involved? Yes, Washburn is making a point about the insufferable “Karens” who never get called out for their ignorance, but when this behavior is so prevalent in the real world — and by now both unremarkable and tiresome in its visibility — the intended satire falls flat. With regard to Trump, Washburn has written with 20-20 hindsight, so a conversation about the potential for a future impeachment is labored and comes across as pretentious.

When the characters talk in the way real people do, instead of in orchestrated arguments, they become interesting. Washburn only creates these moments when they are talking about what it means to keep making money during the nation’s political crisis or how a sudden economic reversal affects a family. These moments are brief, and then the characters retreat to posturing, once again pushing the audience away.

There’s no question that political theater is risky and challenging. Shakespeare’s history plays are very talky, but they’re full of action, developed characters, and insight. (Washburn’s characters take swipes at Shakespeare and Euripides, including a very stilted reference to The Public’s 2017 controversial production of “Julius Caesar” that portrayed as Caesar as a Trump-like monster.) Yet Shakespeare teaches us that characters whose only dramatic function is to indicate a type or declaim on topics are ultimately boring.

In using surreal appearances of real political figures, Washburn imitates Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” but without the emotional impact of a character like Roy Cohn, where Kushner’s rage informed the portrayal. Nor does Washburn create the dramatic tension of “Oslo,” which was character-driven and where peace was literally at stake. Washburn’s characters talk a lot, but they do very little. For all their blather, they are largely ineffectual in the world but have the luxury of espousing big ideas from ivory towers. That may be an indictment of a certain class of Americans today, but it’s hardly gripping theater. Rather, it’s like being trapped at a dinner party with a guest who monopolizes the conversation but is challenged by no one because the crowd has heard it all before and it’s not worth the effort.

Interspersed with all of this talk is a subplot about the former owner of the house who adopted a child from Africa, which brings in issues of race and identity, but they are not fully developed and seem facile, merely dropped in to check the box about racial commentary.

A play that is about current, or nearly current, events invites comparison to Richard Nelson’s plays about the Apple, Gabriel, and Michael families in Rhinebeck, particularly as these were first staged by The Public. Much of what is talked about in Nelson’s plays comes in response to what is going on in the culture politically and economically. Nelson, however, assumes his audiences come into the theater with at least some knowledge of what’s going on outside. Rather than wasting time rehashing the headlines, he shows the depth to which the world is affecting his characters.

One can certainly argue that Washburn and Nelson are stylistically different, have different intentions, and that preference for one over the other is a matter of personal taste. Yet where Nelson’s characters gathered in their kitchens are deeply human and inspire an empathetic response, one wishes the people in Washburn’s farmhouse would just shut up — or at least say something original. We get to know intimately who Nelson’s people are. Washburn’s are just garden-variety talking heads.

The cast for “Shipwreck” is a collection of favorite theater people, including Raúl Esparza, Jeremy Shamos, Mia Barron, Richard Topol, and Phillip James Brannon, all of whom give detailed performances, particularly Joe Morton as James Comey in the surreal scenes. Director and adaptor Saheem Ali was clearly intent on transforming this play into a new medium, but that medium simply doesn’t serve the play. Unlike The Public’s podcast of “Richard II” earlier this year, which had language and scope to carry it, this more intimate piece is undermined in its transformation.

What does this piece add to our insights and discourse, and why now? Perhaps with a little time and distance, The Public will be able to stage this live. It would likely clarify the dynamics and the world of the play, and it would be intriguing to revisit this material again when satire may land more pointedly in a world — it is to be hoped — transformed.

SHIPWRECK | Podcast from The Public Theater | Streaming free on demand at publictheater.org/productions/season/fall-2020/shipwreck  | Two hrs., 45 mins., in three parts, with additional commentary

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