File under “history repeating itself”: As Americans take to the streets in greater numbers than ever before, they’re not alone out there — they’re standing on the shoulders of previous generations of activists. The year before Shirley Chisholm would become America’s first female presidential candidate from a major party, when second-wave feminism was in its heyday, and the concept of women’s rights as human rights was a yet-unspoken radical one, Norman Mailer wrote a poorly received — some said sexist — essay on women’s liberation for Harper’s magazine. The backlash was swift and fierce, but instead of retreating, Mailer capitalized on the attention by hosting a publicity-stunt-cum-debate with notable “lady writers” of the day. That chaotic, seminal 1971 event would later become the subject of Town Bloody Hall, a documentary by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, which would, in turn, become the basis of The Town Hall Affair, the experimental Wooster Group’s latest production, now running at the Performing Garage in New York.
In a play directed by Elizabeth LeCompte and bookended with excerpts from Jill Johnston’s 1973 essay collection Lesbian Nation, the seven-member cast re-creates scenes from the documentary as their dialogue seamlessly syncs with the film footage displayed on screens around the stage. And the sense of déjà vu is inescapable as the punchably smug moderator clashes with panel participants Johnston (downtown NYC theater doyenne Kate Valk), a stream-of-consciousness-style columnist for The Village Voice and self-proclaimed “lesberated woman”; writer Germaine Greer (The Affair’s Maura Tierney), author of The Female Eunuch and a “saucy feminist that even men like,” per that arbiter of hip, Life magazine; and renowned literary critic and elder stateswoman Diana Trilling (portrayed, with a gender flip, by Greg Mehrten). Echoes of Mailer’s condescending responses abound today, both to Greer’s thoughts — her sentiments were exquisite, he said, but the means offered weren’t up to his standards — and to Johnston’s levels of decorum. (She caused a bit of a scandal when she made out with two women on stage, with Mailer scolding her to “Be a lady!”) Perhaps the parallels were most notable during the recent election, when another female presidential candidate ran up against a series of double standards: Required to be a lady while her opponent was less than gentlemanly, she was criticized for the manner of her delivery instead of the merits of her positions and forced to address not-so-thinly-veiled sexist questions about her health, stamina, and ability to act rationally, not emotionally. In a year in which millions marched in protest of such attitudes, only to be told they had few complaints in comparison to the “real problems” facing women in other countries, that sense of familiarity is a stark reminder of how much gender equality work still remains.
Both on-screen and as portrayed, in alternate moments, by Wooster company members Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd, Mailer is so insufferable that it’s hard to believe the term “mansplaining” wasn’t spontaneously willed into existence when he opened his mouth on the subject of feminism 45 years ago. Mehrten so thoroughly embodies the snooty Trilling you nearly forget he’s not a woman, while Valk is a tour de force as the way-out-there Johnston. (The fact that she’s a dead ringer for Kate McKinnon only lends another layer of surreality to the proceedings).
The action briefly detours from the debate for a glimpse of Mailer vanity project Maidstone, a star vehicle that he wrote and directed for himself about a celebrity who runs for president and films his experience (timely!), but to say much more about the play’s nonlinear structure and unconventional approach might give too much away. Though the subject matter is often infuriating, the performances are engaging and the presentation is fascinating. A challenging but accessible downtown theater experience, this Affair is one to remember. B+