WATERTOWN — The wording of the pre-show exhortation to the audience at “A Bright Room Called Day’’ is utterly routine — except for one pointed, and potent, word.
A voice over the P.A. system urges us to “Sit back, resist, and enjoy the show.’’ And with that single word, the present-day framework is established for experiencing Flat Earth Theatre’s staging of Tony Kushner’s drama about the rise of tyranny in 1930s Germany.
It was an unknown, pre-“Angels in America’’ Kushner who wrote “Bright Room’’ in the 1980s, and his target was Ronald Reagan, whose indifference to the AIDS crisis enraged the playwright. But it is the current occupant of the White House who obviously inspired this Flat Earth production, just as he is inspiring resistance all over the cultural landscape.
And the play itself? It’s an uneven and unwieldy but nonetheless absorbing work that reveals a gifted young writer biting off more than he can chew (which is, after all, the prerogative of young writers). Pretentiousness and insight constantly vie for the upper hand in “Bright Room.’’ The play is overstuffed with didactic speeches, and its cross-cutting between the 1930s and the 1980s never quite ceases being a distraction.
But Kushner’s fierce intelligence and political commitment have a way of burning through even the windiest excess, lending “Bright Room’’ a steadily escalating power. You needn’t buy the notion of Trump-as-Hitler, much less Reagan-as-Hitler, to find “Bright Room’’ a cautionary tale that lodges itself uneasily in your mind. Flat Earth, an audacious and ambitious fringe theater troupe, brings its own all-out passion to the proceedings under the sharply incisive direction of Dori A. Robinson, who helmed the company’s excellent recent production of Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky.’’ Robinson creates and largely sustains an air of suspense in “Bright Room.’’
For all that the play is a rallying cry, however, it must be said that Kushner’s message about the power of artists to combat authoritarianism is not terribly encouraging. The central action of “Bright Room’’ unfolds from 1932 to 1933 within the Berlin apartment of Agnes Eggling, an idealistic actress, portrayed by the exceptionally expressive Lindsay Eagle, who is writing an agitprop skit that involves a Red Baby and a small Hitler doll.
The mood is euphoric at first as Agnes and her left-wing friends gather for a New Year’s celebration. (Lighting designer PJ Strachman does an excellent job signaling mood shifts.) They include Agnes’s lover, Vealtninc Husz (Isaiah Plovnick), a cinematographer who lost an eye two decades earlier; Annabella Gotchling (Juliet Bowler), an artist and unflinching Communist; Paulinka Erdnuss (Nancy Finn), an actress of supple ethics whose movie career is on the rise; and Gregor Bazwald (Noah Simes), an employee at the Berlin Institute for Human Sexuality.
A couple of Communist Party functionaries, played by Alissa Cordeiro and Eric McGowan, also show up during the play, delivering unsolicited advice to Agnes on ways she can make her skit more rigidly doctrinaire. The Devil makes an appearance, elegantly portrayed by Matt Arnold. “Bright Room’’ periodically shifts to the 1980s, spotlighting Zillah Katz (Kim Klasner), penning daily letters of loathing to Reagan. Then there is Kushner’s most ill-advised character: a ghostly, white-faced crone in a nightgown, played by the talented Lizzie Milanovich, who periodically roams the stage like one of the witches from “Macbeth,’’ delivering opaque utterances.
The friends fervently debate politics; at least some of them seem convinced that anti-fascist activism can bring about real social change in Germany. But over the next two years, they watch apprehensively, and helplessly, as Hitler and the Nazis consolidate power, bit by bit. On both sides of the stage are screens on which is projected a timeline that spells out the deepening crisis with increasingly ominous chronological updates: “The Nazis win 37 percent of the popular vote,’’ “Big-money support for a Hitler chancellorship,’’ “The first public book burnings are held,’’ “Opening ceremonies: Dachau concentration camp.’’
They find the idea of life under Nazi rule intolerable, and they are likely to become targets. The friends are soon facing life-or-death decisions: Stay or go? Erstwhile hostess Agnes faces the prospect of being left all alone.
Among the many lines from “Bright Room’’ that resonate after you leave the theater is one delivered by 1980s-dwelling Zillah, who offers a mordant reminder of one of history’s grimmest lessons: that however bad things are, they can always get worse. “Watergate was one of the happiest times of my life, really well done, dramatic and garish and incredibly funny,’’ she says. “Not at all like the bone-naked terror of these days.’’
A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY
Play by Tony Kushner. Directed by Dori A. Robinson. Presented by Flat Earth Theatre. At Black Box Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, through Oct. 14. Tickets $25, 617-923-8487, www.flatearththeatre.comDon Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com