After the Revolution By Amy Herzog Directed by Eleanor Holdridge; At Theater J to Oct. 6 Detroit By Lisa D’Amour Directed by John Vreeke; At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to Oct. 6 At Theater J and Woolly Mammoth, plays about family struggles and fraying ideals

Well-Red: A family of radicals bickers at the end of the ’90s.

Novelists bristle when accused of writing insufficiently disguised autobiography; memoirists rankle at charges of invention. Playwrights? They can do whatever they want. After the Revolution is the first of two Amy Herzog–penned plays that feature her grandmother, Leepee Joseph, whom she’s renamed “Vera” for the stage, though she leaves the family name intact. (Herzog’s other grandmother play, 4000 Miles, got a strong staging at Studio Theatre last spring.) Herzog’s grandfather, Joe Joseph, is a presence in both dramas, too: Although they’re set after his death, his towering legacy as an American Communist who stood up to Joe McCarthy and suffered the slings and arrows of the blacklist hangs over everything, and his descendants talk about him endlessly.

A troubling discovery about Joe’s activities during World War II—stuff the real-life Joe Joseph really did—is the MacGuffin that drives After the Revolution, Herzog’s overearnest, not-funny-enough family drama. Though it premiered in 2010, it’s set in the The Matrix-Midnite Vultures-End of History era of 1999, where “It’s hard to imagine things getting much worse!” as one insufferably self-righteous character, based on Herzog’s dad, declares.

The irony in that line is fully intentional, naturally, but the way it comes to sum up the play’s underfed stakes surely is not. The story centers around Emma (Megan Anderson, energetic and likeable), Vera’s fresh-out-of-law-school granddaughter, who has founded a legal defense fund in her Marxist grandpa’s name to help the unjustly persecuted. She’s working to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the activist and journalist who spent 30 years on death row following his 1981 conviction for killing a Philadelphia police officer. When Emma finds out what her father (Peter Birkenhead) never told her about his father, she stops speaking to him, freezes out her bland nice-guy boyfriend (Carlos Saldaña), and abdicates her professional obligations to the fund.

That’s more or less the logline: A brilliant and successful 26-year-old anti-death penalty activist gets mad at her dad and stops answering her phone for a few weeks. Are you riveted?

Admittedly, you could reduce any story to sound so frivolous. But Herzog’s attempt to use her own family’s history as a microcosm of the dissolution of the American Left after World War II just doesn’t stick. Set designer Misha Kachman tries to hammer home the allegorical payload by putting the actors in front of a giant red curtain, but for all that grasping for grandeur, I never shook the sense I was watching privileged people wrestle with extremely privileged problems. I mean, forsaking your phone here in 2013—when Mumia remains alive and jailed for life without parole despite the tireless efforts of Rage Against the Machine and The Beastie Boys, though Philadelphia officially stopped trying to execute him in 2011—would be a bigger deal than it was back when your phone was stuck to your desk.

It’s a pity that Vera, who was at the center of 4000 Miles, appears in only a handful of scenes. Nancy Robinette does a masterful job of conveying this old, selectively hard-of-hearing revolutionary’s disappointment in the generations that followed hers, but also of critiquing her granddaughter’s preference in men with a raised eyebrow or inflection on a syllable. Susan Rome and Jeff Allin are both strong in what should be thankless roles as Emma’s stepmom and uncle, each of whom tries to broker peace. Allin, especially, has almost no function except to rue his own kids’ lack of interest in history or politics, but that’s funny—it helps to know that not every member of this family speaks in PowerPoint slides all the time. When Robinette, Rome, or Allin is onstage, the play gets a chance to breathe.

Nothing stymies empathy like envy, perhaps: I realized later that I wanted to be part of this clan—so righteous, so loving, so connected to one another—more than I cared to know what happens to them. They’re so utterly beyond reproach it’s as if the Huxtables suddenly started arguing about the WTO protests in Seattle. Even Emma’s younger sister, a recovering addict, never lets anyone down. A minor story told in a major key, this thing feels like its true subject is the one brief lapse in Emma’s otherwise unbroken streak of lifetime overachievement. This too shall pass. It already has.

Detroit By Lisa D’Amour Directed by John Vreeke; At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to Oct. 6

Suburban Verbs: Two couples work through their desperation.

Just how long have we been using poor Detroit as shorthand for urban blight? “Don’t forget the Motor City,” urged Los Angeles punks X 30 years ago: “This was supposed to be the New World!” A few years after that, when screenwriters Ed Miner and Michael Neumeier needed a crime-ridden, once-mighty metropolis to be taken over by the amoral OmniConsumer Products corporation in RoboCop, they cast Detroit in the part. (And then the movie was shot in Dallas, adding financial injury to insult.)

Detroit is never named in Lisa D’Amour’s play Detroit, which could be set in the car-required suburb of any recession-addled American city. It’s a tale of two couples, a few rungs apart on the socioeconomic ladder, with adjoining backyards. (One can easily imagine it as a Dr. Seuss book about two furry families whose tree-dwellings share a common branch.) Sharon and Kenny met in rehab and are making a fresh start; the more financially comfortable Mary and Ben are weathering a pressure change in their relationship since Ben was laid off from his job as—irony alert—a loan officer at a bank. Over burgers and beers—and occasionally, Mary’s more foodie-fancy, status-affirming hors d’oeuvres—they reveal their dreams. By which I mean they talk freely about their literal dreams. The ones they have while they’re asleep.

The cast is strong, though their performances lack surprise. With the exception of Danny Gavigan’s turn as the likably rough-edged laborer Kenny, they’re all in roles similar to ones they’ve played before, often at this theater. (Two of them, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey and Tim Getman, are real-life spouses who met when they were in Gruesome Playground Injuries at Woolly three years ago, also directed by Detroit’s John Vreeke.) As the excitable, motor-mouthed Sharon, Fernandez-Coffey—so brilliant in Theater J’s 2011 After the Fall—turns in another committed performance as a desperate character, one to whom D’Amour gives most of the observations about how suburbs suppress neighborliness and nobody ever goes for a walk.

As Ben and Mary, Getman and Emily K. Townley both believably isolate the ways and moments in which repressed people are persuaded to let their hair down. What D’Amour and the actors capture here more than anything is the deep loneliness that can exist even within committed relationships, and the will required to hold them together.

Tom Kamm’s set puts the characters’ houses and patios in a sort of trench between two batches of audience who look out at one another across the stage. It’s no slight on the actors when I say the urge to watch the other half of the audience watch the play is irresistible.

Video montages projected over scene transitions remind us of the promised tranquility with which suburbs lured people after World War II, but D’Amour wisely doesn’t lean too hard on trying to send up suburban idyll. She came here not to bury this ruined Eden, but to mourn it. Surveying what this suburb of somewhere has become, a late-arriving character can only shake his head and offer the same kind of rueful mantra that cable talking heads recite all the time, invoking some forlorn betrayal of an imagined history: “That’s not what the developers intended.”

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