Power of Sail at Geffen Playhouse

theatre review

PHOTO: Jeff Lorch | South Pasadena News | Bryan Cranston and Hugo Armstrong in Power of Sail at Geffen Playhouse. Directed by Weyni Mengesha.

Bryan Cranston is the rare actor one never sees acting. He is simply being the character. So it’s always a thrill and privilege to watch him work and Angelenos have that chance with Cranston’s lead role in Paul Grellong’s “Power of Sail” which opened this week at the Geffen Playhouse. He plays distinguished Harvard history professor Charles Nichols who, feeling his relevance fading, books an extreme white nationalist named Carver to speak at his upcoming symposium on campus. As students protest and things get increasingly tense, people around Nichols try to convince him to cancel with each offering sound arguments while Nichols digs in his heels. His argument is to answer hate speech with “more speech” not less, while his protégé, Baxter Forrest, who has surpassed him in prestige and popularity, argues that not everyone deserves a place at “the table where the grown-ups are talking.”

PHOTO: Jeff Lorch | South Pasadena News | Brandon Scott and Bryan Cranston in Power of Sail at Geffen Playhouse. Directed by Weyni Mengesha.

It’s a timely argument on the parameters of free speech, one sure to whip up conversation after viewing. In the hands of this capable cast and director Weyni Mengesha, characters make clear arguments, including one scene in particular where Nichols’ Phd student engages him in admitting a little white pride, about what is the most effective way of dealing with ideas that are insidious. Nichols accepts an invitation to meet and dine with Carver and things go sideways. The play then turns back on itself, revealing characters from a new perspective which is really exciting and even more uncomfortable.

PHOTO: Jeff Lorch | South Pasadena News | Tedra Millan and Seth Numrich in Power of Sail at Geffen Playhouse. Directed by Weyni Mengesha.

Cranston is riveting as Nichols, twisting himself in pretzels to justify his reasons for brazenly insisting on going through with this meeting against all pleadings from his colleagues. He is a master of playing the dichotomy of someone doing something despicable that you somehow root for. Amy Brenneman is an emphatic Dean Amy Katz, who seems to be imploring Nichols as a friend but whose main objective is to protect the institution. Brandon Scott is a charming Forrest, taking pains to restrain his resentment of his former professor. Seth Numrich gives a nuanced performance as nebbish Phd student Seth while Tedra Millan is his impassioned fellow student. Rounding out the cast is a forceful Donna Simone Johnson as an FBI agent and a delightful Hugo Armstrong as the bad joke-telling bartender.

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“Power of Sail” runs through March 20. Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. Geffen Playhouse is located at 10886 LeConte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024. For tickets and information visit www.geffenplayhouse.org (310) 208-2028

This production contains adult subject matter and profanity. Not recommended to those under the age of 14. Children under 6 years of age will not be admitted. Covid-19 Vaccinations and masks required.