by Jonathan Spector
Directed by Katy Rudd
The Old Vic – until 31 October 2022
The scene that closes act one of Eureka Day is probably the funniest couple of minutes on any current London stage. Throughout it, the actors, playing school board members in a meeting live-streamed to dozens of concerned parents as they contemplate quarantine following a mumps outbreak, are barely audible however. The dialogue for these smugly well-meaning educational custodians is drowned out by the screams of delight and recognition from the Old Vic audience, reacting to the escalating online parental slanging match in the comments section of the live stream, which is beamed all up the back wall of Rob Howells’s set, to scintillating comic effect. One parent responds solely in emojis, which becomes funnier and funnier as it goes along, and what starts out as a couple of innocent questions rapidly descends into a barrage of abuse and discord as grievances, intolerances and misunderstandings are aired. Not only is it hilarious, it’s supremely relatable, especially after the last couple of years where everyone is a keyboard warrior and a seemingly innocuous comment can prove inflammatory when taken out of context. Perhaps not since the infamous internet seduction scene in Patrick Marber’s Closer has live performance and online communication been this outrageously and inventively intertwined. Eureka Day may be set in California but it feels universal.
It says much for the rest of Jonathan Spector’s richly entertaining satire and the excellence of the acting in Katy Rudd’s engaging production that the second half doesn’t prove an anticlimax, even as it travels in a slightly different direction from the glorious mockery of the first. Interestingly, Spector wrote the play in 2017 (it was first performed on the West Coast then off-Broadway shortly after that) yet it has acquired a striking resonance in the aftermath of the global pandemic, as it considers the boundaries of personal responsibility in the midst of a health crisis, and how a community responds to such circumstances.
Spector gets a lot of comic mileage out of sending up the benignly dictatorial “woke” brigade who control the school and who are so determined to do, say and think the “right” thing that their own privilege and unconscious biases never occur to them, even as they steamroller over the any opposing voices with the cheery, empty slogan “there are no villains here!” A major thrust of the piece, in the second half in particular, is a debate around vaccinations, their efficacy, and whether the risks outweigh the advantages. Spector doesn’t entirely abandon the humour here but is an intelligent enough writer to ensure that both sides are expressed with some persuasion.
The acting is delicious. The production marks the UK stage debut of Oscar and Emmy winner Helen Hunt, and she is magnificent – understated and precise – as Suzanne, a high level board member who has raised passive aggression to an art form while masking a searing emotional pain, revealed in an exquisitely delivered monologue that grounds and illuminates the second half.
Superb as she is, this is very much an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle, and nobody drops the ball in this cracking company. Susan Kelechi Watson is subtly, lethally funny as her arch nemesis, a newly arrived Black parent who both wittingly and unwittingly uncovers some of group’s unconscious biases. If she can’t quite make work the character’s unexpected about-face at the play’s conclusion, that is a flaw in the writing, and one of the few things in Spector’s otherwise admirable text that doesn’t ring true.
Mark McKinney is a total delight as the clueless but well-meaning ageing hippie who insists on concluding each meeting with an esoteric Rumi poem and petrifies at the first sign of conflict. Ben Schnetzer and Kirsten Foster unravel spectacularly as a smugly right-on pair indulging in an extramarital affair only to be riven apart when the realities of a health crisis intrude in their illicit union.
Plays that are simultaneously this provocative and entertaining are pretty rare. The forensic observations and trenchant humour are sometimes reminiscent of Alan Ayckbourn in his heyday (if Ayckbourn had been an American writing about Californian yummy mummies, gender pronouns and faddy trendiness) but the attitudes and terminology are bang up to date. Dazzling and uproarious.