The Last Supper

The Rising Sun Performance Company is now performing Dan Rosen’s movie cum play The Last Supper at The Red Room. It’s a rip-roaring good time, and well worth your dime.

A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged

The official blurb runs something like this: A group of young, liberal graduate students in Iowa have a formal, sit down dinner once a week, to which they like to invite a stranger – to spice up conversation. Their ivory tower serenity is disturbed, however, when their latest guest, Zach (played in the 1995 movie by Bill Paxton!), turns out to be a redneck, pedophilic, murderous, Holocaust denier. Zach taunts the tolerant liberals, saying that they don’t have the balls to stand up for themselves, and pulls a knife on Marc, the resident Jewish artist. Zach is distracted for a moment while breaking the arm of Peter, another sissy liberal, and Marc seizes the opportunity to stab Zach in the back with his own knife. Existential angst ensues as the “liberals” try to justify their aggression. They rationalize it so well that they decide to recreate the scenario every week with a new flavor of conservative crazy. Their preferred method of execution? Poison in the chardonnay.

Throughout the play a conservative TV talk show host, Norman Arbuthnot, bloviates on a video monitor. The liberal roommates watch and deplore him. A thinly veiled Rush Limbaugh, Arbuthnot holds forth pontifically with irony, wit, and verve on the evils of liberalism and virtues of conservative doctrine. After our disaffected liberals have invited to dinner and killed homophobic priests, “manininsts” (the opposite of feminists), Harry Potter hating church ladies, and the local sheriff, Fortuna, goddess of chance, blesses them with the opportunity to have Arbuthnot himself over for dinner. However, cracks have formed in the resolve of our liberal heroes. Two members of the group fear they have gone too far and become what they hated: intolerant. To make matters worse, Arbuthnot speaks like a very reasonable man. He’s not a zealot or an ideologue. Only Luke (played in the movie by Courtney B. Vance – FBI Assistant Director Stanford Wedeck from Flashforward!) still wants to kill him, rationalizing until the end that Arbuthnot is worse than Hitler in 1921: someone guiltless of crime now, but capable of inspiring a future genocide. After a teary intervention that brings Luke back into the liberal fold, our would-be murderers return to Arbuthnot chastened, tolerant, and ready to accept him for who he is. He, in fellowship, has poured a chardonnay toast for the table.

As the lights go down for the last time, Abuthnot gives his acceptance speech as his party’s nominee for President of the United States of America.

The Last Supper, though conceived in the halcyon days of the Clinton years, retooled during the long, dark night of G. W. Bush, and deployed during the uncertain promise of Obama, is at root a conservative critique of liberalism as a philosophy. Mr. Rosen may have thought he was being a gadfly of the David Mamet variety when he penned the piece nearly twenty years ago, but today is it clear that this is a fly in the ointment of liberalism that refuses to go away. Zach, the liberals’ first guest, puts the question as succinctly as possible: is there anything you care enough about to kill for? Dying for something is easy because it’s passive: slaves die for their masters in order to maintain the peculiar institution. But at what point will you recognize your enemy and strike?

Arbuthnot’s brand of conservatism correctly reads liberalism’s laissez faire nonchalance as an unsustainable pose. When push really does come to shove, stuff you said you could tolerate becomes intolerable. Everyone’s sexuality is permissible – unless it’s a man’s aggressive machismo. Everyone is entitled to their own religious beliefs – as long as those beliefs aren’t dogmatic. (And what religion – including Richard Dawkins’s atheism – isn’t dogmatic?) The dinner party’s liberals are principled vegan pacifists – until they discover the joy of slaughtering an opponent. That is, liberals are people who pretend they don’t care, and conservatives are people who have the courage to say they do care.

Sound backwards? Aren’t liberals the ones who care about the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free? Don’t they care about the environment and a woman’s right to control her sexual reproduction? You might say that liberals care about individuals and conservatives care about distinctions, and you would be half right. Conservatives do care about distinctions: women are not men and logically do not deserve the same “rights,” in the same way that illegal immigrants are not citizens and don’t deserve the same rights, or that janitors are not CEOs and don’t deserve the same pay. But conservatives do care deeply about individuals, just like liberals. The difference is conservatives only consider you an “individual” if you are strong and powerful, that is rich and economically productive. Slaves are means, not individuals. The archetypally feminine (weak by definition) doesn’t count. The poor and immigrants don’t count. Subaltern races don’t count. But powerful men and women, like Carly Fiorina and Tiger Woods, are individuals. Rich people are individuals, and now the Supreme Court has decided that corporations are also individuals by the same logic: their money and ability to make money give them a voice.

The logic of The Last Supper is the same as Odets’s Waiting for Lefty: the opposite of Communist isn’t Conservative, it’s Liberal (and vice versa). What makes an individual is not their right to a free market and unfettered trade, a situation that breaks down distinctions in the solvent of “toleration”; an individual is one who has has decided to put down their freedom from obligation in order to fight for a cause.

A liberal is a conservative who has been incarcerated

The deep emotional logic shared by Limbaugh and Lenin says that struggle, and the pain that is its necessary constituent, is the source of virtue. The pain an individual experiences puts them above empathy for those too weak to do for themselves. And so a sensitive viewer will feel the rush of truth when Arbuthnot poisons the liberals. After all, he’s just punishing them for their murders. Given enough time, resources, and political will they most certainly would have committed a genocide — of conservatives. But more than that, he is punishing them for being weak, losing their resolve at the crucial moment when they had him in their grasp, and failing to seal the deal.

This is Rosen’s text, and The Rising Sun Performance Company has stayed true to it. The major characters are complex and develop from pathetically empathetic bleeding hearts (Arbuthnot excepted) to hardened murderers; and the minor characters — with the exception of Heather, who I saw performed by April Bennett — are static, two-dimensional bogey men. Drama operates on conflict — struggle — and if you accept the definition of conservative above, that means drama is inherently “conservative.” Here is Rosen’s Mamet-esque joke: actors and audiences of New York City theater, especially off-Broadway, downtown theater, consider themselves liberals. But every time an audience member heaves a sigh of disgust when one of the stock villains says something intolerant and cheers when that villain is murdered; that viewer betrays her principles of compassion and proves herself to be just as intolerant — and twice as hypocritical — as the bad guy. Rosen has tricked you into enjoying a revenge fantasy that is just as cruel and sadistic as a Nazi’s antisemitism or a terrorist’s self-righteous jihad. Gothcha! says Rosen.

But there might be another way to stage this play that highlights some unintended ironies in the text and make a stronger case for empathy and compassion. April Bennett had it for a moment, but the plot steamrolled over her. More suave menace from Arbuthnot at the dinner table could do the same. This direction would not validate Arbuthnot’s dramatically titillating villainy, but would expose the liberals’ lack of empathy to be as spiritually corrosive as it really is. But in truth, the just punishment for an Ayn Randian neoconservative villain like Limbaugh is to be caught assuming liberties he has not been granted by society — the collective — and properly punished. Rush should have been sent to jail for his heroine addiction. It was the Randian corruption of our justice system that let him off the hook. Luke and the liberal gang could more realistically deal with the solipsistic conservative menace by insisting on transparency in politics and impartial justice in the courts. What we need are more Bobby Kennedys — not more Arbuthnots.

As a whole, however, this production is very entertaining and thought provoking. The set and sounds are wonderfully designed, and Nick Micozzi’s media mock up of “The O’Reilley [Arbuthnot] Factor” is spot on. The company rotates two casts, and the play is performed every Wednesday at 8 from now through August. Check it out. You’ll be glad you did.

The Last Supper

Every Wednesday through August 25th

The Red Room, 85 East 4th Street, 3rd floor