In Power of Sail, his play currently receiving a stellar production in its West Coast Premiere at the Geffen Theatre in Westwood, playwright Paul Grellong examines the constitutional right to free speech in America, the growing threat of White Supremacy and the masks people wear to cover their true feelings and actions even in the hallowed halls of Academia. “Power of sail” is a nautical term—a power boat always yields the right-of-way to a sailboat. But in the current political climate of our country, Grellong seems to ask, who has the power? Who should be yielding? Does a young, charismatic Neo-Nazi have the right to spout his hatred freely in the venerated halls of a liberal university such as Harvard in 2019?
History department head and oft-published historian Charles Nichols (Bryan Cranston) has invited Carver, the new voice of the American Right, to speak at his annual symposium, the 19th year he has hosted one on campus. He knows it will be a controversial move, but he intends to use the opportunity to expose Carver and his movement. Nichols believes the answer to hate speech is more speech. But the news of Carver’s speech is leaked to the press before Nichols has a chance to massage it to fit his purposes. The result is a vociferous crowd of student protestors outside his office. Dean Katz (Amy Brenneman) asks him to cancel the invite but instead Nichols agrees to meet Carver at his fortified compound in Maine to go over the ground rules. He convinces one of his grad school assistants, Lucas Poole (Seth Numrich) to accompany him. Another student/teacher’s aide Maggie Rosen (Tedra Millan) refuses to meet with a Neo Nazi. A former student of Nichols’, successful author and frequent Rachel Maddow Show talking head Baxter Forrest (Brandon Scott), is in town from his teaching post in Chicago. He also tries to get Nichols to cancel the speech but to no avail. Nichols and Poole attend a dinner meeting that eventually leads to a violent protest and a death at the gates of the compound. Things go downhill fast after that. The image of a defeated Nichols, cradling his vandalized beloved hand-built sailing ship in his trashed office is a devastating image of a man and his ego in its last gasps.
In Grellong’s puzzle of a play, pieces are peeled away like layers of an onion, slowly exposing new facts. Everyone seems to be wearing a mask until they are forced to reveal their truer motivations as the play’s structure doubles back on itself disclosing buried agendas. Nichols seems to be the most transparent, desperately seeking to re-establish his reputation as a meaningful historian and author as he feels superseded by his former students on the best seller lists and TV talk shows. But even his motives are more layered than he first admits to. Katz, Poole, Rosen and Forrest all have their own goals in mind as they deal behind the scenes. The only two characters who seem to have no hidden agendas are the “just the facts, sir” FBI agent Harris (Donna Simone Johnson), investigating the tragedy at the Neo-Nazi compound, and neighborhood bartender Frank (Hugo Armstrong), whose sole goal seems to be telling really corny jokes to his customers.
Under Weyni Mengesha’s tight direction, there is not a wasted moment in the 105-minute no-intermission show. The acting is top notch from Cranston and Brenneman down to one-scene and out Johnson and Armstrong. Rachel Myers has designed a spectacular turntable scenic design that contains booklined offices as well ivy-covered walls.