The operative word in the title of Power of Sail is its first. Among the play’s fascinating questions about power: Who wields it, and for how long? Does power buy its holder a pass on poor decisions and corruption, or have transparency and cancel culture undermined the very concept of power? What are the forces that cause power shifts?
Power of Sail, which recently opened at the Geffen Playhouse, stars Bryan Cranston as big-name Harvard professor Charles Nichols. (Those in the professor’s circle, and he himself, regularly invoke the Harvard name, to reinforce its implied access, heft and shield.) Nichols organizes an annual symposium on campus, and has invited a white nationalist and Holocaust denier named Carver to participate.
When the play opens, word of Carver’s upcoming appearance on campus has leaked and students are protesting outside Nichols’ sumptuous office. Dean Amy Katz (Amy Brenneman) arrives to insist he uninvite Carver, engendering a debate over free speech that is a main theme of the show.
Nichols, upset that he hadn’t been able to announce Carver’s inclusion in his own symposium with his own context, rails against the current generation of students, calling them children who willfully resist navigating an adult world. The Dean stands firm; Nichols, used to getting his own way, chafes.
The timeframe is fall 2019, pre-election, pre-Covid. Now, barely two years later, the question of who deserves a platform and who should be silenced—who should retain power and who should have it stripped away—resonates as strongly as it did way back then.
Writer Paul Grellong and director Weyni Mengesha have created a brilliant and timely portrait of an insular society and the fractured world beyond. Credit must also go to casting director Phyllis Schuringa for the pitch perfect casting. All actors fit their roles as if they were written specifically for them, especially Cranston, who is riveting as he grapples with forces from within and without his ivy-covered walls.
Baxter Forrest (Brandon Scott), a Harvard alumnus, has strong opinions about Carver’s appearance, as do competing PhD candidates Lucas Pool (Seth Numrich) and Maggie Rosen (Tedra Millan). As the stage spins and the play progresses in a most fulfilling and non-linear way, the winners and losers in the power game are revealed.
Power of Sail runs through March 20 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 2:00pm and 7:00 pm, as well as Saturdays at 3:00pm. Tickets are $39-129 and are available here. Parking in the underground lot just to the west is a flat rate of $5. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination and mask-wearing are required.
About Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Neo Ensemble Theatre in Hollywood.
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