Timely, entertaining show about divided politics fails to even the score
At the heart of The Last Supper, a light-hearted new musical that got its debut at SOPAC in South Orange this week, is a deadly serious philosophical inquiry.
If a young, angry painting student named Adolph stumbled out of a pub in post-World War I Berlin, would you be morally justified in stabbing him?
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
The Last Supper updates the 1995 film of the same name. The movie featured a stunning cast (Jason Alexander, Cameron Diaz, Nora Dunn, Charles Durning, Ron Eldard, Annabeth Gish, Mark Harmon, Bill Paxton, Jonathan Penner, Ron Perlman, Courtney B. Vance) and a can’t-miss premise. Five 30-something grad school students murder a conservative who has stumbled into their midst. And then, having made the world a bit better with his absence, they decide to invite a string of far right-wingers to dinner and do the earth a favor by removing them from its face.
In this version, updated as a musical with book and lyrics by Jeremy Desmond and music by Jeff Thomson and produced by Broadway lifer and two-time Tony winner (“Pippin” and “Porgy and Bess”) Howard Kagan, the friends hate-watch the Naomi Day Show on a Fox News equivalent and talk about how much better off we’d all be without the likes of Ms. Day and her red-capped fans.
But that’s all they do — talk. One Sunday, one of their number gets a flat tire and the fellow who rescues him and brings him to dinner is a hunter and outdoorsman. They repay his kindness by inviting him to join for supper. Little by little, he reveals that he is not a fellow traveler politically, but also cruel and insane.
Therein lies the central problem with The Last Supper.
The musical pretends to unmask the shortcomings of both sides of our brutally divided current political map. But while the left is revealed to be merely annoying and hypocritical, the right is depicted as psychopathic. In every case.
There’s the original visitor, who remarks that Jews usually try to lower the price of things they buy but inflate the numbers killed in the Holocaust. (If it even happened.) The friendly pastor who shocks the genitals of homosexuals as a form of conversion therapy. The frat bro who longs for #MeThree—the world that comes after #MeToo. All are worthy not just of contempt but of murder. In other words, conservatives are the moral equivalent not just of Tucker Carlson, but of Hitler from the original philosophical inquiry that sets off their discussion.
This is an unsurmountable flaw. A musical that’s entirely about the hopelessness of our country’s divisions cannot redeem itself when it takes the position that half the country’s voters are the moral equivalent of history’s worst genocidal maniac. The production would benefit from at least one longer, more three-dimensional conversation between one of the conservative guests and his idealistic hosts.
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t powerful and sharp insights wrapped in both the songs and the dialogue, not to mention some stellar performances.
Two stand-outs are Mark Evans, who plays most of the right-wing nuts, and Megan Kane, who plays Paulie, one of the hosts who had herself been victimized by a sexual assault and is struggling with its after-effects.
Charlotte d’Amboise, who plays Naomi Day as a mash-up of Laura Ingraham and Megyn Kelly, is a tad over the top, but has the strongest voice and dancing chops in the cast (though her red-sequined closing number seemed oddly incongruous).
One of the points made most powerfully in the show is the notion that something preventing liberals from greater political success, despite their dominance in the nation’s popular vote and generally high scores on questions from legalized abortion to gay marriage, is as one character puts it, “Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line.”
The first victim of the diners mocks them with a song that becomes the overture of the entire musical. “Whatcha gonna do,” he asks, “Stage a protest? Make a hashtag?” He portrays progressives as adept at rhetoric but unwilling to act.
Flawed as it may be, The Last Supper raises serious issues about our politics, and whether it’s possible or even desirable to find common ground. Kagan has put together a very talented cast to wrestle with that question, and the show is better for the cast including performers who look like real people. Ably directed by Tony nominee Sheryl Kaller (“Next Fall” and “Mothers and Sons”), the show has no lulls and zips along at a crisp pace. If the show moves forward, I would advise blocking the dinner table sequences differently so that none of the actors has his back to the audience. Lorin Latarro’s (“Into the Woods” and “Waitress”) choreography makes the most of a cast who are better at acting and singing than dancing.
Ultimately, in a country still reeling from a bloody insurrection at its capital, as well as a show trial that features questioners selected by only one side which produces evidence packaged for public consumption by a literal TV producer, it’s hard to imagine a world where anyone could walk into a musical like this and be persuaded to take a thoughtful look at the views of those on the other side. When you’re portraying one side as murderers and the other side as very much deserving of being murdered, maybe you’re not helping.