I’m at the Cowgate Underbelly this afternoon to see “The Abode,” some breezy ensemblism from California’s Pepperdine University. Young Americans can form an ensemble with a gusto that UK students never seem to be able to replicate. Throw a dozen young Brits together and the class system will soon get in the way – they will not gel and become an effortless unit, as Americans do. Everyone from Pepperdine is filled with energy and it is somehow the same energy, as if each member of the cast has been issued with a pill from the same bottle.
It feels out of sync, therefore, that this play’s theme is division. Samuel (Nate Bartoshuk) is twenty but he has never got laid and he is not getting real paid. His Dad had worked in, yes, the town’s former Kodak factory, which is surely the easiest shorthand spelling available for deindustrialisation. Inadequate and alienated, Samuel dives into the town’s alt-right underworld, but his sister (Jacquelyn Ashley Ferguson), a university administrator, hatches a plan to rescue him. Fighting fire with fire, she turns to some equally unpleasant anti-fascist activists for help.
I probably would not have checked out “The Abode” had I remembered Pepperdine from their 2016 show “The Interference.” Yet “The Abode” is not in itself an “irritating, complicated mess of a play,” as I had dubbed this predecessor, and perhaps they are in command of a more adept writer this time around. Pepperdine arrives with the self-inflicted handicap of being a Christian university, which inevitably restricts their freedoms, and they also have this tactic of collaborating with hired Scottish playwrights. Bizarrely, “The Abode” is written by Davey Anderson, a Glaswegian. We might think that we are going to learn all about the American alt-right, but this play is actually the work of a writer and performers who appear to have as much connection to the subject as we do.
This possibly explains the absence of a realism that might have made the drama more compelling. “The Abode” is literally a fairy story, with Samuel serving as the child who went with the fairies and the incels switching him for a glassy-eyed changeling. This aspect of the story functions unexpectedly well: the different characters are slight but deftly-drawn, like the components of an innocent action-adventure; the raid on fairyland is stirring. There is additionally the wilful anachronism that the story is somehow set in the 1980s or the age of Stranger Things, which seems like a further muddying of the realism. Without these contrivances, the play by and large concedes that the solutions to Samuel’s woe are economic. Samuel will not make any headway until his society can grant him some empowering economic role. If the society within the play had any ken of how to do this, however, then there would not be fascists swarming at the gates.
“The Abode” mocks the alt-right and it worries about some of the illiberal responses to this subculture, but it all adds up, ultimately, to an empty plea for everybody just to be sensible. I’m not sure that simply dialling down the intolerance will Make America Great Again.