SALT LAKE CITY — Seventy years ago, there was a viable chance that two extremely influential minds in the world of economics sat together on a rooftop waiting for a bomb from Hitler’s Lufthansa to fall on a church. John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek both taught at Cambridge during WWII and volunteered to help clear incendiary bombs should one fall on St. Paul’s Church. Eric Samuelsen’s world premiere at Plan-B Theatre of Clearing Bombs explores the conversation they may have had with each other and one everyman, Mr. Bowles. Over the course of the evening, the two discuss the bombs each might drop into the world of economics following the end of World War II and Adolf Hitler.
If the idea of a play about economics sounds questionable to you, I would suggest that any person who’d like to get some grounding in the subject would benefit from attendance. Like well-produced Shakespeare, it took language modern Americans generally find difficult to understand and suddenly made it comprehensive and entertaining. Samuelsen’s method of taking a complicated academic subject and injecting it into a play is reminiscent of Wit or Proof—modern classics that discussed Renaissance English poetry and complex mathematics as intimate parts of the storylines. Like these shows, Clearing Bombs explores how very human people dealt with problems in light of great intelligence. Clearing Bombs, however, does not use economics as a background character trait, but as the driving force of plot.
The play started off amicably as two colleagues met on the roof of the church and were introduced to Mr. Bowles, who taught them how to douse the incendiary device should one fall near them. The debate then slowly grew from professional acquiescence, to a general debate, to professionalism discarded by bickering, interjections, and appalling ad hominem assertions. Every so often this was broken up by the need to listen for approaching planes or Mr. Bowles claiming a point as absurd.
The real question at the end of this show was who won? This was intentionally left open for some interpretation. Samuelsen allowed each economist to have a close to equal say. During the talkback session on Wednesday’s preview, it sounded like there were supporters of each. One man profoundly commented, “Whoever’s ideals you most deeply aligned with, probably won.”
The play was intended to be equal, but I think that Keynes won just barely. At the time of the story, Keynes had already written his famous book that allowed him to advise President Roosevelt in the Great Depression and head the committee to finance the war for Britain. Meanwhile, the not-yet-famous Hayek presented a more theoretical classical economics that to Mr. Bowles consistently sounded like rubbish, usually because it was more theoretical than Keynes more intervention-based approach. Hayek also uses some poorly created personal attacks, which made him less endearing to a modern audience. However, despite what seemed like a losing battle for most the show, Hayek’s last argument was one that really hit home to Mr. Bowles: What if bad economic choices were to lead to the rise of another Hitler? So for myself, Keynes was winning the majority of the time, but Hayek got the last word. This was a part of the driving action as Hayek was trying desperately to catch up dramatically, but it does unduly influence the equal representation of each side in a format that intends to leave us questioning in the end.
The particulars of the debate aside, there were clear personality differences that drove the show and influenced the rhetoric. Mark Fossen portrayed an amiable John Maynard Keynes. He had the appearance of a more laid back British professor as his stance was often in a slight bend, curving his large figure, and completed by usually keeping his hands in his suit coat pockets. While obviously intelligent, he was the more approachable of the two professors. Jay Perry as Friedrich Hayek embodied a deliberate and upright Austrian. He always stood erect and used distinct gestures and phrasing. The only time this faltered was when his character was faced with the bomb sirens, as his instinct from childhood in Austria was to hide and caused him empathetic panic attacks. Mr. Bowles was often a side note to the action as he broke up the debate and gave each economist a goal of someone to persuade. Kirt Bateman provided Bowles all the power of a family man who has seen great pain in his fellow man through bread lines and unemployment. Yet, it was thoroughly enjoyable to Bowles him easily riled up to spit out a few bombastic euphemisms in contrast to the eloquent vocabulary of the two economists.
I did appreciate the balanced approach Samuelsen gave to each of the characters and the history that helped drive them. As opposed to some shows about genius minds that focus on their eccentricities, this show portrayed brilliant minds in a mostly balanced character. The characters were a little stereotypical Austrian, British intelligentia, and an ignorant bloke, but they all had tangible human experience that helped define them. Keynes became jaded and put off by the glories of writing his book and mentored Hayek to be wary of the “success” it brings. Hayek gave a powerful speech about the fall of Germany and Austria after World War I from the greatest nations in the world with the greatest minds, to a place where people could not afford to buy a loaf of bread because the money was worthless. Likewise, my heart went out to Mr. Bowles as he spoke of the sacrifices of two daughter nurses and three sons fighting in the war, as his family was “just doing our part.” Luckily, between the debates and sentimental moments there were some moments of laughter, like Mr. Bowles recounting the efforts of a fellow Britain to have the German airplanes bomb the Albert Memorial so they could be rid of the “monstrosity.”
Overall, I was very impressed with Clearing Bombs. The direction, also by Samuelsen, drew attention to the speaker or to the pondering face of the onstage listener. Samuelsen’s pacing for 95 minutes of an on-again, off-again debate was brisk and compelling. The unit set (by Randy Rasmussen) of a church roof worked, with just a few of chairs and its slanted precipice that doubled as a bench. There was a strong lighting effect (by Jesse Portillo) from the scrim which provided the illusion of the misty clouds, but also lit up to white smoke as bombs began to fall in the distance. I appreciated the costuming (by Phillip R. Lowe) that fit well the time and especially liked both Keynes and Hayek wearing suits tailored in such a way that matched their more relaxed or crisp personalities, respectively.
Clearing Bombs will clear the muddled air of today’s economic situation for many audience members. The play discusses the origins and benefits of central banks, government debt, unemployment rates, and free markets—and fears about them, too. It is a lesson that is approachable and entertaining, and left me wondering which path that modern society will choose to take in the future.