Addressing themes of moral relativity, careerism, and the limits of free speech and tolerance, Paul Grellong’s somewhat schematic yet entertaining POWER OF SAIL—now at the Geffen Playhouse—stars Bryan Cranston as Charles Nichols. A Harvard professor, circa late 2019, he’s finalizing the details of the annual symposium he organizes for the university. Expressing the need to “expose” repulsive ideas in order to combat them—“the answer to hate speech is more speech” is one of his many bromides that play, in 2022, as parody—Nichols has invited a white supremacist to speak on campus.
Naturally, the student body as well as his colleagues are up in arms. Faculty dean Amy Katz (Amy Brenneman) has a disinvitation statement written up for Nichols to review, and former student-turned-public intellectual Baxter Forrest (Brandon Scott) urges his mentor to consider the consequences of his rash decision. But Nichols, a liberal of a certain age already chafing at the imperatives of wokeness, is adamant. Summoned to the neo-Nazi’s compound in Maine for a preliminary vetting, the professor and one of his students (Lucas, played by Seth Numrich) plan a train trip north.
Cranston excels at playing—indeed, has become a symbol of—fallen men of exasperating reasonableness, instantiating their expedience and compromise on their way down the slippery slope of their own device. And he and his POWER OF SAIL cast mates vividly inhabit this explication of privilege and disaster. But at times it’s hard to know whether some of the the playwright’s hypotheses, and the potential disingenuousness of at least one character, are dramatic feints or unintentional anachronisms. By autumn 2019—three years after the 2016 election—no American white nationalist would be looking for street cred at Harvard. Nor would a university professor, even one as blinkered as Nichols, feel the need to extend an invitation to such a figure for purposes of “exposure.” Lucas’ stated supposition that the Trump-era alt-right might feel relatively powerless in the face of the Establishment—power of sail versus power of motor—is laughable in light of what one writer recently called “the radioactive gush of white supremacy through the fire hose of social media.”*
The production was directed by Weyni Mengesha. See link below for details.
Written by Paul Grellong
Directed by Weyni Mengesha
Through March 27
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood, Los Angeles
*Paul Solotaroff, “The Undercover Nazi,” Rolling Stone, February 2022, 65.
Paul Grellong, Power of Sail, directed by Weyni Mengesha, Geffen Playhouse, February 8, 2022–March 20, 2022, from top: Bryan Cranston; Brandon Scott and Cranston; Tedra Millan (left) and Seth Numrich; Amy Brenneman and Cranston; Donna Simone Johnson and Cranston; Cranston. Photographs by Jeff Lorch, courtesy Geffen Playhouse.