"The Last True Believer"is a serious, thoughtful, complex and provocative play of ideas that I don't think many people will like very much. This world premiere production, solidly directed by Leonard Foglia, is compelling throughout, even when the script at times becomes a bit enervated and bloodless. Beautifully designed and for the most part very well acted, Robert William Sherwood's play is a story that seems curiously remote in its concern for relatively recent events, and disappointingly unaffecting for all it's intensely personal revelations.
The story concerns a son's search for the truth about his father, who was engaged in espionage in Berlin during the final days of the Cold War, shortly before the Wall came down. Two families are intricately and intimately connected by the death, which was either a suicide or a murder, and everyone is both object and teller of the many versions of what might be the truth. Deception, interpretation, loyalty and duplicity, naivete and cynicism are all points of a free-spinning compass of situational reality, from which one can determine no fixed direction, no hope of resolution. This public and private Cold War is a frigid portrait of an icy reality in which nothing is ever to be trusted except suspicion, and the truth, or at least some kinds of truth, "can kill people".
Nothing exemplifies that sort of truth better than the character of Phillip, played beautifully by Terence Rigby. From the opening scene, in which he meets with a long-time East German contact (Peter A. Jacobs), this is a face which knows but does not reveal. The subtle achievement of Mr. Rigby's performance is in disseminating both his information and disinformation with so dispassionately that we are rarely aware of how much he manipulates everyone in the play, and in the audience. The arc of his performance is an almost imperceptible deterioration from a kind of functional rationality to complete emotional and personal anarchy, the parallel of the play's politics of social corruption and ethical collapse.
Balanced by an equally mature and nuanced performance by Lisa Harrow as his wife, Margaret, the generation with first-hand knowledge of the persons and events in question is both credible and imposing. The smoldering war between these opposing forces, one cynical and crippled and the other idealistic and enslaved, is the greatest strength of the evening. With them, all of the play's ideas had physicality and dimension, and the sense of consequence for values and compromises was palpable and dynamic.
That immediacy and passionate impact did not carry through to the younger generation in the play (which, to be fair, is also one of the themes). As their daughter, Liz McCarthy is cool, sophisticated and believable. Her sense of having acquiesced to her life is touching, even when her personal achievements have the tainted integrity of a person honest enough to deplore her own compromise. The story of the two younger people is a kind of "childhood's end", and hers is a sudden recognition that she has arrived at adulthood unprepared for maturity, and with an identity more presumed than assumed.
Unfortunately, in the key role of Kevin, the son in search of his own past, I thought Coby Goss failed utterly. I never really had a sense that he carried these questions with the urgency they required, and there is a superficiality and glibness about him that belies the deep seriousness of the situation, and the information he receives. Once he receives the "truth" he sought, I never believed it contained the kind of fearsome lethality it should have. Rather than a kind of truth that kills, this one barely scratched. In the end, I think the lack of a clear sense of imperative from this character robs the story of dramatic momentum. Compounding that, the script itself grows a bit verbose and labored in the second act. A wonderfully performed scene between Phillip and Margaret simply goes on too long. The final scene, a kind of bookend to the opening, is again diluted by inadequate change in the son.
The show could not be more attractively mounted. The expressive and ingenious set by Michael McGarty is all about surfaces, from the opening intersection of glossy red walls to the daughter's featureless apartment with its anonymous furniture and total lack of history, to Phillip and Margaret's unfolding home, filled with tasteful mementos of world travel, all set against a backdrop of stark, tangled branches in a leafless forest. It is a beautifully reasoned design. Equally effective is the scene music by Peter Golub, which holds the action in a kind of lush suspension, both attractive and slightly threatening. Lighting by Brian Nason and costumes by David C. Woolard is dead-on and smartly integrated.
I think that where "The Last True Believer" really fails is in winning our sympathy to the same extent that it wins our curiosity. A large part of the problem is the son, but even Phillip and Margaret are people who have become embalmed in choices made long ago, and who now seem utterly powerless to change anything about their circumstances. We are asked to feel warmly, or at least with concern and understanding, about characters who seem to have desperately little warmth left in themselves. Even the daughter Jessica, who is arguably the most innocent of them all, feels inauthentic and contrived to herself. How then should we feel about her emotions? By the end of the evening we are quite convinced that we really should believe nothing we hear, and very little that we see. We've been shown that all feelings are sentiment, all motives suspect, all truth relative and compromised. How then do we care?
One can be quite engaged in watching the pieces of a chess game being moved, but unless it matters which player will win in the end, it's not very satisfying. To me, the lack not only of the play's resolution, but of any hope that there could be resolution for anyone in trying to understand their experience, was profoundly unsatisfying, regardless of the clarity and depth of the writing, the breadth of the author's concerns, or the sheer intelligence of his rhetoric. At the play's end, I was not so much moved by the play's experience as I was impressed by its accomplishment. I did, indeed, feel as if I had been bruised by a battle, but it also felt, in every sense, like a very cold war.
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