Eureka Day at the Old Vic is probably the funniest thing you will see at the theatre this year
The brightly coloured, interconnected stick figures that snake around the set of Eureka Day demonstrate a community spirit united in their diversity – and indeed that is definitely the rhetoric that the assembled members of the executive community to Berkley, California’s private school “Eureka Day” ascribe to. The play opens with the group painstakingly debating exactly what options to provide parents with as race options for a dropdown menu on their application form, debating whether “transracial adoptee” counts as an official race, and harking back to a previous argument many years ago in which it was decided not to separate “Jewish” from “white”.
The assembled group: leader Don (Mark McKinney), never to be seen without his cargo shorts and socks-with-sandals combo, old-hand Suzanne (Helen Hunt), stay-at-home Dad Eli (Ben Schnetzer), mind-mannered knitting enthusiast May (Kirsten Foster) and newcomer, Carina (Susan Kelechi Watson), on the panel purely to fill a quota that each year a member of the executive committee must be a new parent to the school, to offer a fresh perspective. It is, however, a group rendered ineffectual by the fear to offend. Their conversations go round in circles, as each carefully monitors their language in the quest for mutual understanding and respect.
This means that when a health crisis actually does confront the school, the executive committee are paralysed in the pursuit of reaching an outcome that appeases everybody. A sudden outbreak of Mumps means that the Health Authority declare that the school shut down for a quarantine period and stipulates that all children receive the MMR vaccine before returning to school. This debate causes conflict across the school, as lines are drawn between those parents who view vaccines as protecting their children and those that view them as a health risk.
Jonathan Spector, in a piece that was surprisingly written back in 2018, does well to highlight both sides of the debate here in great nuance. Critically, though, it is increasingly apparent that the argument is ruled more by personal feeling and less upon actual fact. None more so is this felt than in the hilarious denouement of the first act, in which the executive committee hold a livestream with the parents over the recent news from the health authority.
Whilst Mark and co. desperately try to discuss the actual issue, a litany of comments on the livestream adorn the back wall, prompting visceral responses in the audience. The actors’ lines rendered nigh-on inaudible amidst the gales of laughter, the comments start innocently enough (one such commenter determined to exclusively react with a thumbs up emoji is a repeated running gag), with charming non-sequiturs and tangential comments, before devolving into all-out warfare, with parents slinging insults at each other, questioning each other’s intelligence and parenting techniques, before, inevitably, drawing comparisons to the Nazis. It is an incredibly accomplished sequence, both technically, and from a written perspective, and is most likely the funniest thing this reviewer has ever seen performed.
Soon, the illusion of inclusivity at Eureka Day begins to dissolve, as even the executive committee demonstrate that their primary allegiance is to their own and not towards the greater community. Even their previously respectful conversations of the first act are laced with micro-aggressions: interrupting each other, twisting each other’s words to manipulate each other to a unanimous agreement, treating themselves and their viewpoints with a barely concealed sense of superiority over newcomer Carina.
Critically, however, nobody is painted as a villain. Both the actors’ performances and Spector’s writing give nuance to every character, though the principal conflict occurs between Suzanne and Carina in some spectacularly tense scenes. Academy Award winner Helen Hunt makes her West End debut as Suzanne, who is given enough reason for her views towards the science surrounding vaccination such that she seems like a real person. A voice is given to her grief and anger to help explain the way that she has been manipulated by the wealth of conspiratorial misinformation available online. She plays Suzanne in a suitably understated fashion, so that even when the audience do not agree with her, they can still conceive of her as intelligent and reasonable, merely shaped by her own past that inform her present decisions.
Mark McKinney is brilliantly affable as Don, who desperately tries to keep the group civil and progressing. The source of much of the humour throughout, McKinney’s comedic timing is impeccable. Elsewhere, there is Ben Schnetzer who starts the play somewhat of a man child determined to prove that he is the most sensitive and thoughtful of the whole bunch, and the most determined to champion inclusivity, but shows real depth when his own family is faced with a health crisis. Kirsten Foster also shows magnificent shades as the chirpy May, whose Act 2 breakdown while aggressively knitting is infinitely watchable.
A true star turn is performed here, however, by Susan Kelechi Watson. Known to audience members as Beth Pearson from This Is Us, Kelechi Watson gives a commanding performance. While she starts the first act meekly observing, her character soon comes into her confidence and her own voice. Her reactions to Suzanne’s subtle references towards race are also perfectly achieved: just the right amount of recognition to clock it without it dominating the scene.
Brilliantly engrossing and thought provoking, Eureka Day is both resonant and hilarious, with incredible performances and deft, nuanced writing. An incredible piece of theatre, though its lack of ability to find its own solution means that its satirical take on liberalism ends up dangling without a conclusion.
Eureka Day is playing until 31 Oct 2022 at The Old Vic. Tickets and additional information can be found here.