The audience never tunes out while watching The Extremists at 7 Stages. At first we sit back and laugh at the doublespeak as CJ Hopkins' media satire takes potshots at some easy targets. By the end, we find ourselves squirming as if we're the ones in the hot seat, mentally justifying our own choices and behaviors. After a stealthy first half, the production confronts the viewers like it's a merciless Jon Stewart and we're a hapless Jim Cramer.
In part, the play forces its spectators to wonder why they watch news and opinion shows such as "Nightline," "The O'Reilly Factor," "The Daily Show" or "Issues in Focus." Instead of consuming news to be informed or find fresh perspectives, The Extremists suggests people merely want confirmation of their already held beliefs, only with more authority and snap. At times The Extremists proves a bit too proud of its own cleverness, but it succeeds at forcing the audience to examine itself. Most theater falls short of that goal, while most television never even makes the attempt.
7 Stages produced The Extremists with Atlanta's PushPush Theater and Germany's English Theatre Berlin, where the company just staged the play's world premiere. The bare performance space, squared off with footlights, evokes a boxing ring or an avant-garde cabaret more than a cable television studio. Nonetheless, it's the venue for the weekly show "Issues in Focus." Dick Hedgerow (PushPush co-aristic director Tim Habeger) plays host to expert Norm Krieger (7 Stages artistic director Del Hamilton), a resident at the Orwellian-titled Center for Advanced Strategic Studies that focuses on the threat of extremism in the world today.
At first, Norm recites boilerplate recognizable from the first months following Sept. 11, like a flashback to an Ari Fleischer press conference. (Before the play begins, the Twin Towers appear on a large screen, in case we could possibly miss the context.) Norm seems to make strong statements, but qualifies virtually his every utterance. We must be vigilant, but not to the point where it becomes disruptive. We should just go about our lives, knowing another attack could come at any minute.
Hopkins draws his dialogue from the same place of rapid-fire inspiration as David Mamet rhetoric and Jerry Seinfeld banter. Habeger and Hamilton find laughs simply by volleying clichés back and forth about opening "a can of worms," "Pandora's box" and "the genie from the bottle" in quick succession. When Norm says, "We're not out of the woods," Dick inquires, "Well, where are we then?" And Norm replies, after the briefest of pauses, "Obviously, we're still in the woods."
As the conversation continues, the stakes grow progressively larger and the word "extremists" seems to refer to more than just Islamic terrorists. When Norm talks about how extremists embrace violence, he may refer to suicide bomb-style terrorism, but also to officially sanctioned torture in violation of the Geneva Convention. The idea that a sense of crisis can distract the populace most immediately evokes homeland security legislation, but can also apply, without much of a stretch, to massively expensive financial bailout packages. The play doesn't just target conservatives, but implies that the entire political process is a corrupt means for national and global dominance.
Habeger's suspenders and shirt sleeves suggest that Dick's a right-of-center host, or at least a self-styled populist, but he's not an ideologic lapdog. Habeger's hand gestures signal that Dick's working through some of Norm's ideas, until the broadcaster begins to genuinely question his own politics, career and the meaning of his life. In December, Habeger's PushPush Theater staged Hopkins' screwmachine/eyecandy, which also used a television program — a game show — to force unreflective Americans to question their values and assumptions.
Hamilton at first strikes a mock-heroic, William Shatner-ish pose that contrasts with Norm's blandly enthusiastic delivery. Norm seems overheated and gung-ho at times, like a spoof of a general, but part of the fun of The Extremists is questioning Norm's sincerity. Is he really parroting the party line, or is he using the show to communicate the exact opposite, through code and misdirection? At one point, he describes how broadcasters could disseminate messages of dissent. Theoretically, of course.
Dick and Norm take a tangent to discuss a famous actor's onstage meltdown as a example of jolting spectators from their complacency. The Extremists violates the fourth wall when Hamilton calls "Line?" at repeated moments. The prompts tend to be both amplified and hilariously simple bits of dialogue such as, "Yes, it is." The device almost certainly seems to be a meta-theatrical stunt to encourage the audience to pay attention to the person behind the curtain. Nevertheless, the play's references to live theater seem slightly cute and self-congratulatory.
Director Walter Asmus helmed 7 Stages' superb Waiting for Godot in 2004. With The Extremists, he stages another lively production in which practically nothing happens, at least on the superficial level. Dick and Norm don't even have props and furniture. Instead, Asmus and the actors keep up the pace and energy level for about 75 minutes. It's to their credit that the production never feels like empty chatter.
Near the play's end, one of the characters finds himself in the dark with the audience, wondering whether he's been brainwashed into accepting someone else's system of ideas. Few questions can be as potentially explosive as "Why aren't you doing exactly what you want?" If you ask yourself such things, you may be an extremist without even realizing it. The Extremists doesn't just turn the tables on the talk shows, but on everybody. To paraphrase "Pogo" cartoonist Walt Kelly, "We have met the extremists, and they is us."