Eric Samuelsen is a playwright in love with ideas, especially when those ideas clash and collide. Pitting the theories of two prominent 20th-century economists against each other may not sound like a likely subject for dramatic action, but Samuelsen’s "Clearing Bombs," making its world premiere at Plan-B Theatre Company, proves that education can be entertaining.
How does Samuelsen do it? First, he puts the characters in a life-threatening situation. Englishman John Maynard Keynes and expatriate Austrian Friedrich Hayek are volunteer air-raid wardens on the exposed rooftop of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England, during the height of World War II, with a bombing raid imminent. The building beneath them currently houses refugee children.
Passionate performances and witty, articulate writing enliven Eric Samuelsen’s exploration of clashing economic theories in this Plan-B production.
When » Reviewed Feb. 20; continues Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., through March 2.
Where » Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City.
Running time » 95 minutes (no intermission).
Both men have a personal relationship with the war: Keynes is part of a committee providing funding for England’s military effort, and Hayek left Austria during the economic freefall that preceded the war: "Bad economics led to Hitler as surely as clouds lead to rain," he asserts.
But what makes "Clearing Bombs" really work is its third character, Mr. Bowles, their supervising fire warden, who knows nothing and cares even less about economics — until the two men reveal to him, as Keynes says, that "economics is everyday life." Keynes and Hayek explain their diametrically opposed economic theories to him using examples like football and buying beefsteak and cabbage at the local market. That makes the ideas accessible to the audience.
Samuelsen also finds succinct ways to pinpoint the conflict in their theories. "What you fear is too much government; what I fear is too little," Keynes explains. When Keynes protests that Hayek’s approach doesn’t address the plight of people without food or jobs, Hayek counters, "Economists cannot afford the luxury of compassion."
The oppositions between their positions surface: rules vs. freedom, government structure and stimulus vs. self-regulation, taking risks vs. equilibrium. In the play’s wittiest exchange, Bowles accuses Hayek, "Your equilibrium isn’t equal, and your laissez isn’t fair(e)." But Bowles’ opinions vacillate as the tide of argument shifts.
The heated argument eventually becomes personal, with Hayek accusing Keynes of being an elitist and dilettante and Keynes implying that Hayek is an uncaring bigot. Although the animosity is understandable, it is disconcerting and seems intrusive.
A talky play needs energizing performances, and this production’s cast is perfectly balanced and impassioned. As Keynes, Mark Fossen is authoritative, idealistic and slightly arrogant. Jay Perry’s Hayek has the tenacity of a bull terrier, zeroing in on perceived weaknesses in his opponent’s argument and attacking. And Kirt Bateman’s Bowles is the epitome of the English everyman: patriotic, hardworking, earnest and opinionated.
Playwright Samuelsen’s direction is focused and perceptive with only occasional lapses. Randy Rasmussen’s stark concrete set, Jesse Portillo’s dim lighting, and the droning planes and intermittent sirens of Cheryl Ann Cluff’s sound design create an ominous atmosphere that adds to the tension. Philip Lowe’s period costumes sharply delineate English class distinctions.
Why should any of us care about century-old economic theories? In an interview last summer, Samuelsen told me that while writing the play, he realized that "the debate between Keynes and Hayek was essentially the debate between Obama and Romney in the last election. At one point, Keynes said, ‘In an election, you think you are voting for a candidate, but you’re not; you’re voting for one of a competing set of economic theories.’ "
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