“It’s a love letter to the theater,” said Hayley Finn — ebullient over the choice — as she described This Much I Know, Jonathan Spector’s astonishing new play, which opens at Theater J next week.
Finn, who is the J’s new artistic director as well as director of this play, chose it to launch this, her first full season in charge, because of its mixture of comedy and drama.
“It’s full of revelation, magic, and mystery,” she told me, her excitement palpable on screen as we chatted on Zoom just ahead of the opening.
“All the characters are on a voyage of intellectual dimensions,” she added, pointing out that the play is basically a puzzle, one in which the pieces — like a Rubik’s cube — gradually fit together. “As a director, it’s a dream to work on.”
The playwright, Jonathan Spector, is — according to Finn — a master at moving people and places and connecting them in the process. (Eureka Day, his previous play, involved the same technique. Produced at Mosaic in 2019, it was a runaway hit at London’s Old Vic.)
In This Much I Know, three actors play multiple roles. “Locations change, morphing into new ones before your eyes, creating a sense of magic,” Finn said.
“One of the storylines is based on a real person, Derek Black, who came from a family of white supremacists. He ended up going to college and getting to know people quite different from himself, and that completely changed his beliefs.”
In the play, the character modeled on Derek is called Harold. “However, as crafted by Spector, the character is clearly sympathetic,” Finn explained.
“Harold is trying to find his way in the world,” she continued. But his beliefs have been shaped by a white nationalist movement that has risen to the surface in recent years, creating an alarming increase in hate crimes.
In Harold’s case, we see a young student who comes from this background but then is forced to grapple with his family beliefs when he is confronted by a professor who encourages him to look at things from a different angle.
According to Finn, the play resonates deeply — with her and with others who have seen it — as it questions the challenges and complexities of what it means to be human. “It asks us, How do we make the choices we make?”
Choice is really at the heart of the play.
Curiously, according to both Spector and Finn, This Much I Know was inspired by a best-selling book on behavioral economics. Called Thinking Fast and Slow, it was written by Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli-American known for his work on economics, for which he won the 2002 Nobel Prize.
The book is about the difference between “fast” thinking — which is emotional and easily influenced by outside forces — and “slow” thinking, which is rational.
I asked Finn, “Is it fair to say that this play applies some of the basic theories of economics — such as how and why we make purchasing choices — to the volatile rise in racism and antisemitism?”
To my astonishment, she said “Yes!
“That’s because it deals with the choices we make and what’s called ‘confirmation bias,’ meaning that we see what we have been trained to see.
“The magic of the play,” she added, “comes from the fact that the playwright illustrates this theory through the lives of his characters.”
While there are three actors playing 18 roles, most of them are minor. The principal characters are Harold (Ethan J. Miller), the white nationalist who attends a liberal arts college; his professor, Lukash (Firdous Bamji), who is from India; (neither white nor American); Natalia (Dani Stoller), the wife of the professor, who has left him; and Svetlana (also Stoller), Stalin’s real-life daughter, who defected from the former Soviet Union in 1967.
In one of the most pivotal moments of the play, we learn that a driver — who turns out to be Natalia, the wife of the professor — has killed someone on a bike.
Finn spelled it out: “Natalia kills the biker. It’s accidental because the biker was riding in traffic and not wearing a helmet. So she’s not responsible, yet her behavior causes his death. The accident has changed who she is as a person.”
And that’s the dilemma.
Finn began reading Spector’s plays around four years ago when both were working at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, she as associate artistic director and he as one of its writers.
“I remember reading this play in 2020 and being stunned by its story, craft, and unique structure. When I took over this position at Theater J, I knew I wanted to do the East Coast premiere here,” she said.
“So many things attracted me to the play. It’s an emotional and intellectual journey. I love the fact that the characters are telling parallel stories and that the stories intersect.
“The structure is complex, but the result is funny,” she added.
“Spector is a man of the theater. He’s a brilliant writer, a master of both character and dialogue. He brings ideas to life.”
“But why Theater J?” I asked.
She laughed. “Why? Because this play is intensely Jewish in theme, if not in characters or plot. It’s Talmudic in concept and style. Like Jews everywhere, all the characters are arguing with each other!
“More important, however, is that the play revolves around the issues of racism and antisemitism. Harold, the white supremacist, is an avowed hater of Jews. His goal is to separate people by race and culture, and then to place one over the other.
“The action of the play serves literally to lift the veil from his eyes.”
For Spector, having This Much I Know at the J is a way to return to his theater roots. He was an intern at Theater J when he was just starting out.
For Finn, who has spent her whole career reading new plays, bringing This Much I Know to Theater J is a chance to recognize brilliant writing, and to combine serious ideas with laughter.
“What would you like people to walk away with?” I asked.
“I hope people will think about ideas and experiences in a new way. I hope they’ll think about what it means to be human, to be present for another person, to be attentive,” she said.
And then she added, “It’s theatrical and fun. Come see it with your partner or friends, then sit down and have a conversation. Ask yourself afterward what resonates, and how and why you understand the connections.
“This is a play you’re going to want to talk about for a long time,” she predicted. “It’s full of revelation and discovery. And everyone will pick up on different aspects of the play!”
Running Time: Approximately two hours including one intermission
This Much I Know plays from January 31 through February 25, 2024, presented by Theater J at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater in the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($50–$70, with member and military discounts available) online, by calling the ticket office at 202-777-3210, or by email ([email protected]).
The program for This Much I Know will be online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are required for Thursday evening and Saturday matinee performances. For more information, visit Theater J’s COVID Safety Guidelines.
This Much I Know
by Jonathan Spector
A: Firdous Bamji*
B: Dani Stoller*
C: Ethan J. Miller*
*Appearing through an Agreement with the Actors’ Equity Association
Director: Hayley Finn
Assistant Director: Shana Laski
Set Design: Misha Kachman+
Costume Design: Danielle Preston+
Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills+
Projection Design: Mona Kasra+
Sound Design: Sarah O’Halloran+
Props Design: Pamela Weiner
Production Stage Manager: Anthony O. Bullock*
Assistant Stage Manager: Hansin Arvind
Assistant Stage Manager: Grace Carter
*Appearing through an Agreement with the Actors’ Equity Association
+Member of United Scenic Artists Local 829
Hayley Finn on falling in love with Theater J’s mission (interview by Lisa Traiger, October 6, 2023)