Lisa Kron’s ‘In the Wake’ is an ambitious success

NEW YORK:Ellen has it all: She’s a beautiful, thirtysomething, middle-class intellectual living a comfortable life with a loving boyfriend and a “puppy pile” of friends in the East Village. She’s never really suffered, never even had her heart broken.”We’re so lucky,” she tells her lover in Act 1, the two snuggling on a sofa.It will not last, of course.Lisa Kron’s formidable new play “In the Wake,” which opened Monday at the Public Theater, traces the gradual undoing of Ellen’s life against the backdrop of the George W. Bush years — and has plenty to say about society’s path of self-destruction.Full of sharp, smart dialogue and great acting under the nimble direction of Leigh Silverman, it’s a play that sometimes wanders and sometimes tries too hard, but its ambition cannot be denied and its message rings all too true.Played superbly by Marin Ireland, Ellen is someone who passionately believes in the power of change, of complexity and hope. And she’s not shy about it: She bulldozes her mile-a-minute ideas at anyone nearby, regardless of appropriateness or if her listeners even agree with her.How her lovely life fell apart is a mystery to Ellen as the play begins. “I have to find the blind spot,” she says in her opening monologue, triggering a series of flashbacks.We first see her at work on Thanksgiving 2000, where she is naturally furious about the way Republicans are contesting the Bush-Gore election. She almost ruins the turkey dinner for her boyfriend Danny (Michael Chernus), his sister Kayla (Susan Pourfar), her sister’s wife Lauri (Danielle Skraastad) and close friend Judy (Deidre O’Connell.) Ellen cannot stop railing at the injustice of the world. She’s not a monster, just a hubris-filled neurotic who wants the last word.

Her world — one that’s more finely tuned than she imagined, it turns out — is upended when she embarks on a long-term relationship with another woman, Amy (Jenny Bacon), who unlocks in Ellen something new, something more.True to form, Ellen manages to keep her boyfriend and her lover at the same time, though deep down she knows this arrangement is ultimately unsustainable. Something will change, she tells herself. Eventually.”You can’t have everything, Ellen,” says her exasperated boyfriend. “That’s not choosing!”Kron, the playwright who achieved fame for “Well,” sets her new play against the 2000 election, 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq invasion and Bush’s re-election. By the end, Ellen is clearly an allegory for an America that keeps stretching itself without facing the consequences.David Korins’ sets and Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting and projections work both sides of this play admirably. The main set — Ellen’s and Danny’s living room — will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent time in a cramped Manhattan apartment: The cluttered bookshelves, the fire escape for smokers, the threadbare sofa, one of those ubiquitous New Yorker posters and even the grubby hand prints on the door.

Nichols captures events in the wider world by projecting images onto the proscenium between scenes of New York Times headlines matched with video snatches of news reports or sound bites from the likes of Bush or Donald Rumsfeld.Ireland is simply wonderful in a difficult role, capturing Ellen’s neediness, passion, gut-wrenching sadness, naivete and warmth into a portrayal that is so human it makes Ellen almost too likable. Chernus’ Danny is a patient, funny sweetheart of a man whose quiet distress at his girlfriend’s affair is beautifully realized. O’Connell as Judy first appears as a terse grump, but unfolds her character like an umbrella by the end to be fully realized and compelling.This thoughtful play ends with a measure of hope as Ellen begins to understand her blind spot. Or, at least, knows where to find the consequences. “Look at your wake, I guess — at the damage you’ve left in your wake,” she says – Entertainment