There’s a scene at the center of Jonathan Spector’s sharp comedy that reduces an audience of 1,000 to helpless laughter. The setting is the Eureka Day School in Berkeley, on the west coast of America, and a group of anxious, well-meaning adults are perched on brightly colored furniture slightly too small for them, hunched intently over a computer portable.
They are holding a “community-enabled conversation” on zoom. They represent the school board and at the other end of the camera is the (invisible) group of parents. There’s a mumps outbreak at school, and the board is proposing quarantine for all unvaccinated children – there are plenty of them, as this is the kind of liberal school where all children are referred to by neuter pronouns and even the donuts are ethically sourced.
As chairman of the board, Don, an aging hippie in shorts and scarves, tries to operate the camera and explain school politics – “I know there’s a lot of anxiety there -down right now…so I’m just trying to keep my heart open to all of you and I know you will do the same” – the parents’ comments on the livestream play on the set above his head .
Quickly, the contributions evolve from a discussion of natural remedies for ibuprofen, to a full-fledged battle between anti-vaxxers and those who believe their approach is dangerous and ignorant. Everyone wants the best for their children but there is absolutely no agreement on what is best. It’s only moments before the comments shift to accusations of fascism and outright abuse. The final emoji, of a character whose main contribution to the debate was a thumbs up, gets the audience laughing.
The satire is broad but perfectly calibrated; the writing is fiercely precise, and director Katy Rudd holds the whole crumbling scene—”that’s not how we treat each other,” Don moans—with marvelous precision. In laughter, there is a kind of recognition. The online meeting descending into chaos, the row over vaccinations and public safety feels like an experience everyone has had, one way or another, for the past few years. Still, the piece was first seen in the United States in 2018; its relevance now is entirely coincidental.
It is, in fact, a very good comedy even without its topical overtones, nailing a particular kind of middle-class thinking with astonishing precision. Here he’s given a fabulous outing (a co-production between Sonia Friedman and the Old Vic), put together by Rob Howell in the kind of room where the building blocks spell Activist, and dressed by him in a fine eye for West Coast casual.
The cast is led by Oscar winner Helen Hunt, who makes her London debut as the patrician Suzanne, who fails to recognize her own prejudices and sense of entitlement under a cover of concerns about equality and creation. space for all. She is more than matched by Susan Kelechi Watson (of It’s us fame) who is wonderfully subtle in the role of Carina, a woman who struggles to make a different point of view heard in a space bounded by unacknowledged privilege, and who gradually finds a way to challenge the idea that choice individual always trumps the public good.
Mark McKinney makes Don idealistic as well as irritating, Ben Schnetzer finds deep emotion in the role of Eli, whose serious and easy-going demeanors are challenged by experience, and in May, Kirsten Foster draws the the best part of a wonderful speech where his frustration at his powerlessness in the face of the destruction of the planet pours out.
Spector’s position in the vaccine debate is fairly clear, but he is careful to acknowledge that there are reasons for the lofty aspirations of his targets. It gives vaccine hesitants a reason for their beliefs; Suzanne has reason to be wary of Big Pharma.
Some of his most interesting insights — what really constitutes community values, how herd immunity actually works, the difference between believing in climate change (backed by scientists) and vaccine denial (not backed by scientists) — are trampled in the rush to a too-small conclusion.
However, Eureka Day is an invigorating corrective to the idea that you can only discuss serious issues with a straight face.