FLASHBACK: The Mercury Players Theatre Production Of “The Last Supper” (2011)

There was a motion picture released in 1995 called The Last Supper. The plot involved a group of Liberal grad student housemates who stumble into their own mad conspiracy to invite politically disagreeable people over for supper and poison them, in order to make the world a better place.

I rented the flick on VHS back in ’96 or so, mainly because it was a dark comedy with an odd premise and it had an interesting cast of actors (including Cameron Diaz, a big selling point for me 20 years ago). And I enjoyed it enough to watch it a few more times when it played on Showtime a year or two later.

Then, in early 2011, I read that a small theater group in Madison, Wisconsin, would be staging an adaptation of the film, with the participation of the playwright, Dan Rosen, who had also written the original screenplay. He had updated the play for the Obama era, with references to the Tea Party, the No Labels movement, etc. Curiosity got the better of me and Madison wasn’t too far of a drive, so I bought tickets for the show.

I was interested in catching this show for two reasons. As I said, I had enjoyed the original motion picture (though it had been a few years since I’d last seen it). Plus, the show was courting minor controversy in the blogosphere, given the highly charged political atmosphere in the country (the intensity of which has only increased since then), so I looked at it as an event worth checking out firsthand. An experience.

Even though I’d firmly made the switch from knee-jerk Liberal to well-read Conservative, I still went into the theater in March 2011 with an open mind. 

My then-girlfriend (now wife) enjoyed the play. She thought it was amusing. I thought it was rather dreary. The movie was much better, I said. After we got home that night,  I decided to jot down some notes for posterity.

What worked as a motion picture, aided by editing, quality cinematography, and score, didn’t translate to the stage very well at all. The film’s satisfying moments of comedic timing, visual flair, and dramatic impact were sorely missed.

Aside from the occasional pre-recorded TV appearances of the stage play’s Rush Limbaugh-inspired character, which added some much needed comedic spark to the proceedings, the play and its characters came across as very thin and hopelessly flat.

last-supper-play

Without professionals like the movie’s Courtney B. Vance, Ron Eldard, Cameron Diaz, Annabeth Gish, Bill Paxton, Ron Perlman, Charles Durning, et al., the script’s shortcomings were made all the more apparent. As a stage play, Rosen’s story just wasn’t strong enough to withstand the narrow characterizations provided by the Madison production’s college-theater cast. Perhaps with a cast of theater professionals, but I’m not so sure.

Some stories are best served as motion pictures. I believe this is one of them.

the-last-supper

On a purely technical level, I just didn’t believe for a minute that I was watching anything but uneven line readings delivered by actors who shared precious little onstage chemistry.

The film’s cast had charisma to burn. Even though I may have disagreed with what some of the characters said or did (although, back in the mid-Nineties, my sympathies still lay with the Left side of the aisle) I enjoyed watching them. With charming actors in a slick production, it was much easier to overlook just how shallow the script really was.

As for the content of the play, I felt Rosen was wallowing in far-Left radical territory when he had one of his characters describe Josef  Stalin as a right-winger and then had the Limbaugh caricature actually describe Mexican illegals as ‘wetbacks’ on his TV show. The real guy, believe it or not, does not use language like that. If he did, the Left would never stop shouting about it (and you know I’m right).

In fact, none of the prominent Conservative radio and internet voices I’ve tuned into for the past 15 years have ever engaged in those kinds of ethnic or racial slurs. Whenever someone calls in and tries to hurl that kind of venomous garbage into the conversation, the hosts are quick to shut them down and point out that they’re not in agreement with that kind of racist crap.

But if you’re a Conservative-fearing/hating Leftist who’s been self-exiled to a Liberal bubble for the entirety of your adult life, and your view of the world comes from the Conservative stereotyping perpetuated by fellow travelers, I can understand why you might tend to believe the worst about your political opponents. 

The play’s Limbaugh character was a projection of the playwright’s uninformed prejudices toward the real guy. The entire play was little more than a cavalcade of predictable and simplistic left-wing cliches about Conservatives.

And, that night, the Madison audience ate it up. Every last bit of it.

Keep in mind, I caught this production in early 2011, in a Liberal college town during the beginning of the Obama administration’s third year in office. Yet, back then, the Left was so worked up and furious with the Right that a play like this, based on a screenplay for a movie that premiered in Spring of 1996, was so laudably received, you’d think George W. Bush was back running the country.

Why was the Left so pissed off in March 2011? They’d just suffered an insulting setback with the 2010 mid-term elections, when the Democrats, post-Obamacare, lost their Congressional super-majority. The Tea Party had been going strong for nearly two years and the Left couldn’t deal with it except to smear and slander the Conservative opposition. This production of The Last Supper fed into that frustration and rage.

Which made me wonder: If the shoe were on the other foot, if the murderous college Liberals poisoning cardboard-stereotype Conservatives in the play were instead rewritten as college Conservatives poisoning cardboard-stereotype Liberals, would the audience have responded as favorably?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I think not.

Look, as a Conservative, if I were watching such a play, and Conservative characters were happily murdering radical Leftists to “make the world a better place”, I wouldn’t have gone along with the play’s premise. I would have walked out once the first radical Lefty bit the dust and the psychotic right-wingers cracked their first joke about it.

As a believer in free speech, I’m not interested in shutting down viewpoints I find disagreeable, much less murdering their proponents. As a Midwestern child of the 1970s and 1980s, I was taught the old adage about sticks and stones, that they can break your bones, but that words can never hurt you. I still believe that.

If I pass someone on the street and they say to me “You’re ugly and stupid and your mother’s a whore”, I have every right to disagree with them verbally (or just laugh at them and walk away, which is more my style, as I’ve found that laughter tends to piss off anyone who’s looking for a fight).

I don’t, however, have the right to kick them in the crotch or pull a knife on them. That would be an unlawful use of force.

I say let the opposition talk…and talk some more…and let their audience decide if they think the opposition’s worth listening to. If not, the audience is free to walk away.

Personally, I’d like to know where people stand on issues, exactly what they believe, particularly if they hope to shove those beliefs down everyone else’s throats.

If the ideas are truly noxious and extreme, they’ll be rejected. This was never Nazi Germany when Obama was in the Oval Office and it’s not Nazi Germany now that Trump’s in charge. I guess I have more faith in the average American than does the strident Left/Right extremist, both of whom tend to peddle paranoia when it’s expedient to do so.

Getting back to Rosen’s stage adaptation of the film, I found it off-putting that the playwright had his characters, at one point, declare that the Tea Party held the same goals and values found in the old ’90s cliches about the Religious Right. The two factions are not the same. In fact, in the last 15 years I’ve been following Conservative politics, the Religious Right’s kept a pretty low profile, if any at all. 

I’ve had many friends firmly in the non-religious camp gravitate toward the Tea Party for its view on nothing else but restoring limited Constitutional government. Because that’s what the Tea Party’s about, regardless how desperately the Left tries to caricature it otherwise as a racist or theocratic movement.

The playwright also depicts the Limbaugh character as a crass opportunist who’s not really a Conservative. The character confides to his hosts that he just plays one on TV and that he’s actually a ‘reasonable’ Moderate with a low opinion of his fans.

What a cop-out. So easy. So predictable.

It would have been more of a challenge and more interesting if the Conservative were not only genuine, but had actually been allowed to articulate Conservative principles in plain English, just like the actual Conservative voices I’ve been listening to for the past 15 years.

If the only Conservative talkers in real life were as shallow, bigoted and reactionary as the Limbaugh character in this show, I never would have made the ideological switch. I would have listened to a minute-and-a-half of their petty circus acts and switched them off.

But in order for the playwright to have constructed that kind of character, or given them honestly Conservative dialogue to counter the Liberals’ arguments, the playwright would have had to–

 1) –been interested in allowing his audience to make up their own minds about whose philosophy made more sense (the playwright clearly stacked the deck in the Liberals’ favor during the show’s so-called political debates), and–

2) –have actually been familiar with Conservative principles. Not the cartoonish principles of the Conservative boogeyman living inside the playwright’s head, but actual Conservative principles.

Instead, the playwright found it more compelling to throw the murderous Lefties off balance by revealing the Limbaugh character to be a “moderate” phony who’s, y’know, not really “evil” enough to poison.

My main complaint about the updated version now a stage play was that I just didn’t find it to be that clever. It seemed to me The Last Supper was little more than an overly talky, non-thrilling Death Wish rip-off for the PC Left. Only instead of one grieving ex-bleeding heart liberal going armed vigilante and offering himself as bait to armed muggers…

…we have grad student liberals sneakily poisoning dinner guests whose opinions, whose ideas, the outraged Liberals find loathsome. Until the end of the story, the dinner guests never see it coming. Not much suspense there and the vigilantes’ justification, as it were, was about as thin as one could get without disappearing.

Some have said that The Last Supper is really about freedom of speech and that the murderous grad students aren’t necessarily to be viewed as justified in their conspiracy to rid the world of (mostly) Conservatives.

I might buy this if all the Conservative/un-PC dinner guests targeted for extinction weren’t all depicted as reactionary, simple-minded, bigoted, arrogant, racist, psychotic and/or depraved assholes worthy of, at the least, derision and scorn, if not death.

During the play, I’d occasionally glance around the theater during the show’s several ‘last suppers’. I noticed a majority of audience members wearing big grins. But that wasn’t exactly shocking, because the style of the piece, as written and performed, was presented, largely, as comedy. Perhaps that’s why the play’s quieter, more somber and introspective moments late in the story didn’t work. They felt perfunctory. Tacked on. Unearned.

And it sure didn’t seem to me that anyone in that Madison, Wisconsin theater was viewing the play as a ‘disturbing cautionary tale about the violent suppression of free speech’. They were gleefully enjoying the show, much like fed-up New Yorkers in 1974 cheered Bronson in Death Wish when he gunned down muggers. He was doing what most people in the audience wished they could do (and get away with).

After the play, I went back and re-watched the movie. Doing so made me realize that the script, the structure of the story, the plot twists, weren’t as rich or as clever as I found them to be 15 years earlier. I realized that it was the execution of that script, the 1995 screenplay, that I’d originally found enjoyable. 

last-supper

If it were my piece, I would have allowed some of the less radical Liberals to experience pangs of doubt after listening to the Conservative articulate his firmly-held principles– instead of simply revealing himself to be a ‘sensible’ Moderate, i.e. a cynical fake– in order for division to occur among the housemates, possibly leading to the expulsion (perhaps lethal) of any dissenting voices.

Perhaps one or two of these characters could have had an epiphany, an upsetting realization that they had more in common with the Conservative point of view than they’d ever dared imagine…possibly because they’d never really heard anyone articulate those opposing principles so clearly and convincingly…and that voicing this realization out loud would, obviously, lead to all sorts of trouble with the remaining radicals in the house.

But that would have been uncomfortable for the Liberal audiences this particular show seemed so obviously geared towards.

I also wondered, in retrospect, how a provocative and truly ballsy play, such as David Mamet’s Oleanna, would have been received by the Madison audience.

Since watching The Last Supper at the cozy little Bartell Theater six years ago, I’ve received regular e-mail updates from them. Almost everything produced there reeks of strident, hard-Left messaging. No Mamet to speak of (which doesn’t surprise me, since he’s come out as a Conservative in recent years and his previously lauded work is apparently now perceived as ‘right-wing propaganda’ by many tolerant Liberals in the theater community).

The difference between a play like The Last Supper and Oleanna is that the former panders to Liberal expectations and stereotypes, while the latter both avoids and challenges them.

There’s nothing much to think about with The Last Supper, except to ponder the question of whether or not cold-blooded murder is right or wrong if you find someone’s ideas disagreeable. Maybe a complicated, powerful stage play could be crafted from that basic premise, but The Last Supper falls considerably short in that area.

Dan Rosen seemed to share that sentiment when he gave this statement in an Isthmus interview from January 30th, 2011: 

“I think it’s unbelievably obvious what the play is about. To me, I don’t think it’s that smart. I think it’s easy to figure out.”

– See more at: http://isthmus.com/arts/stage/actress-nora-dunn-playwright-dan-rosen-address-last-supper-controversy/#sthash.nUAEGWiL.dpuf

Oleanna is the kind of solid, complex, confrontational play, i.e. good drama, that famously (or infamously) caused audience members to stand up from their seats, shout insults at the characters on stage and storm out of the theater before the show was over.

But people were still talking about that play years after the fact. That’s how badly it shook up its audience. It had an impact, made an impression, spurred debate, which is what good dramatic theater efforts are meant to do.

oleanna

By contrast, The Last Supper was lightweight and forgettable, a reactionary piece of Liberal wish-fulfillment peppered with lame attempts at humor. In terms of its setting and style, the play struck me as a fascist spin on the TV sitcom Friends.

Yes, fascist.

When you punch someone in the face because you don’t like their politics, that’s fascism. I don’t care how you dress up your intent. 

I’m sure The Last Supper would be a big hit these days at Berkeley…provided the actor playing the Limbaugh caricature didn’t get lynched by the audience at the end of the play, thus ending the show’s run after one night.

Advertisements