Clearing thoughts on a tough subject: Highly entertaining Plan-B Theatre’s ‘Clearing Bombs’

NOTE: Les Roka appreciates Mark Alvarez, an attorney and immigration expert who happens to have studied economics as an undergraduate student, for reviewing Plan-B Theatre’s latest premiere, ‘Clearing Bombs’ which runs through March 2. There are still a few seats available for the remaining performances and ticket information can be found at Photos courtesy of Rick Pollock.

'Clearing Bombs'
Hayek (Jay Perry), Keynes (Mark Fossen), and Mr. Bowles (Kirt Bateman) in ‘Clearing Bombs’

Well done to playwright Eric Samuelsen and everyone involved in Plan-B Theatre’s ‘Clearing Bombs’ for elevating John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich August Hayek and Adam Smith above the caricatures to which they get reduced every two years during election season. Or is it more often?

From the most recent electoral season, one recalls the so-called conservative formulations of “Keynesian economics,” Hayek (particularly for ‘The Road to Serfdom’) as John Galt, and the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith. Those formulations plainly miss the nuance of Keynes, Hayek and Smith, particularly Smith’s concern for morality.

‘Clearing Bombs,’ which is being presented in the Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts in downtown Salt Lake City, concentrates on a fictional conversation Keynes, Hayek and Mr. Bowles have in July 1942 on the roof of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England. The play succeeds largely on the richness of the language and the passion Mark Fossen (Keynes), Jay Perry (Hayek) and Kirt Bateman (Mr. Bowles) put into their performances.

Though the task on the roof concerns clearing bombs if one falls, the substance of the play concerns economics, political philosophy and lessons of life.

It has been noted that Samuelsen read extensively on Keynes and Hayek. He also read much of Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’. The research and the care given to language show, as ‘Clearing Bombs’ is intelligent and accessible. When the conversation tempts the pedantic or esoteric, Mr. Bowles swiftly rights it.

Differences show in Keynes, Hayek and Bowles: ideas, accents, education, appearance, career, wealth and nationality. An Austrian, Hayek speaks with a German accent, something that initially provokes suspicion from the patriotic Bowles. Keynes allays that: “You needn’t mind Freddy [Hayek], Mr. Bowles. He’s Austrian, but as loyal an Englishman as ever you’ll find.”

'Clearing Bombs' by Plan-B Theatre
Plan-B’s ‘Clearing Bombs’

Keynes and Hayek are often pitted against each other concerning central planning, economic markets and individual freedom, yet ‘Clearing Bombs’ indicates the respect these two had for each other.

Keynes on Hayek’s work in progress (‘The Road to Serfdom’): “Don’t get me wrong Freddy. It’s passionately written. I simply lack your attraction for…tragic inevitability.”

To which Hayek responds later: “You predicted catastrophe. With each successive disaster, we all nodded. ‘Keynes,’ we would say.”

Other words humanize Hayek: “And I was in Austria, and saw what you [Keynes] predicted come true. I saw starving German children, violence in the streets, unrest and fanaticism. I saw the SA brown shirts marching. It…defined me.”

The conversation among Hayek, Keynes and Bowles speaks to recent politics. Here, Bowles explains how he votes in elections: “I look for a good bloke, an honest bloke. One with no funny business to him. A chap you could share a pint with, if you take my meaning.”

Keynes and Hayek go on to debate economic stimulus in times of trouble and what effect it could have on individual freedom and the integrity of markets. Hayek especially emphasizes that the free market is self-correcting. Keynes does not reject the idea, but he points out that self-correction takes time, perhaps too much time: “In the long run, we are all of us dead.”

'Clearing Bombs'
The cast of Plan-B’s ‘Clearing Bombs’

Through ‘Clearing Bombs,’ Bowles intermittently brings the conversation back to the task of watching for German bombs, but he also provides anecdotes and experience that challenge Hayek and Keynes to relate their theories to the British everyman.

Bowles speaks about economic difficulty: “You’ve never seen it. Day wage workers queuing up. The milk-or-meat decisions by our wives. The backyard potato patches, and rabbit snares. I had skills and a trade, and was luckier than most. But I saw it. We did what we could, stopped by with a bit of broth for those in our parish in need. But their misery wasn’t due to greed, let me tell you.”

‘Clearing Bombs’ sides slightly with Keynes approach, but when asked near the end of the conversation who has won the debate, Bowles responds: “Our debate? Well. As to that, sir…. (Script: A crash. He sprints off towards it.) Bring up the buckets, lads!”

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