We like Jonathan Moscone, and have admired his directing talents often at CalShakes and A.C.T., and this week a play that is very close to his heart and life premiered at Berkeley Rep. Ghost Light, which was written by longtime Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone and co-conceived by Moscone, who serves both as director and as the central character Taccone insists this is a "character" based on Jonathan who happens to be named Jonathan, but you get the point is a play about a son struggling with the death of his famous father many years after that father was assassinated and made national headlines. And that father was slain San Francisco mayor George Moscone.
The subject matter is close to the hearts of so many San Franciscans, and represents such a significant chapter in our city's recent history that this play had a major burden to bear right out of the gate. In attendance on opening night were Nancy Pelosi and Willie Brown, and everyone in the audience was curious to know how the subject matter would be handled and if it would do justice to the man who has, arguably up to this point, not gotten a fair shake in the history books because his death was quickly overshadowed by the more politically charged death of Harvey Milk. And we can't say that the play holds up under that burden, or that it even wants to. It's a highly personal play, and that makes it all the harder to review, but taken as a work of art we also can't say it succeeds.
It has its moments: a 14-year-old Jonathan Moscone, alone in a dark room watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show, home sick from school on that fateful day in 1978, standing up as a newscaster breaks in to announce the assassination; figments of his psyche arguing on stage about how to access Moscone's memories, pointing to the silent, smoking figure of Mrs. Moscone sitting on a sofa in mourning garb as she watches an episode of the Golden Girls in which Bea Arthur cracks a joke about a sugary snack making Rose want to "kill the mayor of San Francisco," and the room goes silent as the lights go black and that joke lands; a middle aged Jonathan telling the story of his father locking the California Assembly in their chamber while he ran to get the Lieutenant Governor to cast the deciding vote in a pioneering bill to legalize sodomy in California, and the younger Moscone's ensuing tirade about how Harvey Milk would have still been picking up dog shit and sitting in his shitty camera shop on Castro Street if it hadn't been for George Moscone; a dapper George appearing suddenly on stage in a spotlight near the close of the play, lip synching to Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." The play is a collage of powerful scenes and painful ones, but the unfortunate sum of them falls about as flat as Bea Arthur's joke.
Quick synopsis: The present day Jonathan Moscone is working on a new production of Hamlet, something he's always wanted to direct, and he's holding up his costume and set designer by failing, for weeks, to settle on a visual concept for the play. He's stuck on the Ghost, believing that when he figures out what the Ghost should look and sound like, the rest of the concept will fall into place. Meanwhile, he finds himself confronting long-buried memories and emotions about his father's death, and the way his father has, and has not, been remembered by American society.
An obvious influence on the writing is Tony Kushner, a playwright whose career Tony Taccone can take credit for helping to launch (he commissioned Angels in America while heading up the Mark Taper Forum). Ghost Light uses several Kushner-esque conceits, from ghostly figures who exist only in characters' consciousness appearing on stage and speaking in hyper-articulate riddles, to hyper-articulate intellectuals debating American politics over a bottle of grappa. There's even a inside-theater joke near the end about the "Rabbi Kushner" himself. But ultimately the diverse and clever pieces don't coalesce as they should, and we were left feeling shouted at, trying to feel emotions and discover meaning that wasn't there.
Christopher Liam Moore does a terrific job in the role of Jonathan, conjuring the neuroses of a whip-smart theater person tortured, at times, by his own intelligence, and his father's unavoidable shadow. Moscone does a marvelous job directing the show as well, and creating the powerful beats and moments mentioned above.
But in the end we felt like the struggles felt false perhaps it's always hard to fully empathize with another person's mourning, but we were also left cold by the struggle of several theater folk to design a set and some costumes. Maybe it's the smallness of that drama that doesn't deserve the weight it's being given by a connection to a high-profile and legendary tragedy. It's hard to pinpoint why the thing doesn't work, but we couldn't in good conscience recommend the play as it stands. There are too many whiffs of first-draft memoir here, which made us wince a few times too many. Also, it's a puzzle of abstractions, and an indulgent one that is too specifically about one person Jonathan Moscone for us to take pleasure in solving it.
Ghost Light plays through February 19.