Given his enormous work in television, film and on stage, multi-award winning actor Bryan Cranston should be declared a national treasure. Whether his character is a criminal in “Breaking Bad”, or a famous writer in “Trumbo”, or an FBI agent, who infiltrates the world of drugs in “The Infiltrator”, or a soldier in “The Last Flag Flying” , it delivers fully updated and totally believable characters. His acting skills deliver another riveting performance as Harvard professor Charles Nichols in ‘Power of the Sail’, currently on stage at the Geffen Playhouse.
Written by Paul Grellong and directed by Weyni Mengesha, the story revolves around the professor’s decision to bring a hugely controversial speaker into his annual symposium. Carver, 29, is a right-wing white nationalist, Holocaust denier and his impending court appearance has created a storm of protest from students as well as staff. Despite these protests, Charles is unwavering in his decision to continue, defending his decision by saying he would make mincemeat of his white supremacist beliefs. Along with the unseen student protests, which we hear in most of the opening scenes thanks to sound design and original music by Jonathan Snipes, a scathing newspaper editorial denounces Charles’ decision. First to present her cancellation case is Dean Amy Katz, played sympathetically by Amy Brenneman. As colleagues, they have a close and friendly working relationship and although she almost begs him to cancel the speaker, our professor is entrenched, defending her decision in the name of free speech. The next person to try to discourage the professor’s decision is black historian Baxter Forrest, played aptly by Brandon Scott, who is in town for his father’s funeral. He is a former student of Charles and has enjoyed much success as a teacher and MSNBC regular, including multiple appearances on The Rachel Maddow Show. His career has eclipsed that of his former teacher, who may feel a decline in his own career. Again, he defends his decision by stating that he is a “free speech absolutist” and is reluctant to reverse his decision. The next people to try to make the case for cancellation are two graduate students – Lucas Poole, wonderfully played by Seth Numrich, and Maggie Rosen, nicely played by Tedra Millan. They explain that the students are vehemently opposed to giving Carver a voice at one of the most prestigious schools in the country. No matter how much cajoling is presented to Charles, he is firm in his decision and must have dinner with Carver at his Maine compound. He invites his two students to join him but only Lucas agrees to go around. In a seamless transition, Rachel Myers’ beautiful set design, beautifully accented by Lap Chi Chu’s lighting, takes us to Dover Amtrak station where the two wait for a train to arrive. There are some small talk exchanges with Charles talking about his hobby of making model ships. The subject of Baxter returns and one could detect a little envy as his media presence seems to increase, in particular by being interviewed by Terri Gross. We also get a hint that he might be drinking a little too much as he pulls a bottle of booze out of his briefcase and sits down on a bench to try and ease the pain in his foot. A subtle way of telegraphing that in addition to his possibly downward spiraling career, he also has to deal with physical issues related to the aging process, as well as his jealousy of his former student’s success. Charles feels compelled to honk and talks about the fact that five generations of men in his family have attended Harvard. Through these two “innocent” guys shooting the breeze, we’re starting to notice that Lucas may not be who we think he is. He prides himself on being a historian and works on a rather obtuse topic – “The Economy and Agrarian Practices of Seventeenth Century Sweden” and deftly shifts the conversation in the direction of white pride and we start to get some insight of his closed beliefs. Again, be warned, what you see of any of these characters isn’t necessarily the truth. Now, because the action isn’t linear, we jump back and forth in time and in one gripping scene, Maggie goes to Dean Amy to stop Charles from going ahead with his plans. It turns out Maggie has the “goods” on Amy and is forcing her to comply, or else! Well things are not looking good in the Carver compound as students seize the address and attempt to storm the gates which ended tragically for one of the protesters . Overworked, Charles shows up uninvited at Baxter’s and receives a cold reception. His former student is angry at the decision to let this moron speak and tells him that he is a very bad judge of character and wants out of the house. Another smooth set change takes us back to the professor’s office where he’s interviewed by Quinn Harris, a tough, no-nonsense FBI agent, played by Donna Simone Johnson, who’s a master of subtext. She wants a report on everything leading up to the tragic incident and Charles, wanting to impress her, recounts his accomplishments as well as the publication of a book. It’s about here that our playwright begins to reveal the professor’s true motive for allowing Carver on campus and it’s beyond selfish and despicable.
Playwright Grellong crafted an excellent script illuminating duplicity at the highest level, voiced by seemingly decent people. Oh yes. One more thing. Although the bartender scene, played by Hugh Armstrong, is quite short, kudos to him for bringing a little levity to this rather heavy, but fascinating material.
Gil Cates Theater at Geffen Playhouse
10886 Avenue du Conte
Los Angeles, California 90024
Tuesday to Friday: 8:00 p.m.
Saturday: 3:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.
Sunday: 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.
Closing: Sunday March 13, 2022
Tickets: $30 to $129
Duration: 90 minutes – Without intermission
Ticket office: 310.208.2028 or
(Proof of vaccination and mandatory masks)