Broadway's '1984' Depicts a Harrowing, All-Too-Present Future

Reed Birney, right, as O’Brien, helps teach Tom Sturridge, as Winston Smith, how to love Big Brother, in the new Broadway adaptation of George Orwell's “1984.” Julieta Cervantes

With the opening scene of 1984 at the Hudson Theatre, the 2017-2018 Broadway season kicks off with a literal bang. And the bangs keep coming—some audible, some emotional—in the often alarming 100 minutes that follow.

Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan's dramatization of George Orwell's classic dystopian novel tells the story of Winston Smith (played by Tom Sturridge), an everyman who rewrites history for a living. He is a cog in the political machine, one who has come to sense that things might not be as perfect as the government claims. When he gets a love note from Julia (Olivia Wilde), a closet rebel, they form their own personal resistance, indulging in forbidden behavior offstage—all of which the audience sees on huge video screens, manifestations of the constant surveillance of their totalitarian leader, Big Brother.

Eventually, they are discovered and betrayed by O'Brien (Reed Birney), a party loyalist masquerading as a rebel. He and his storm troopers torture Smith: He must not only say he believes, he must truly believe. When O'Brien eventually succeeds, Smith loves Big Brother, as does Julia. They are mindless happy drones.

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The play assumes some familiarity with Orwell's book, but not much is needed. Many of the novel's words and phrases have become part of the modern idiom—e.g., newspeak, doublespeak, unperson—and they are dropped into conversation with almost no explanation. Telescreens are just smart TVs with a much less personable Siri on the other side. The two minutes of hate, an angry pep rally, now seems almost quaint: Fox News does that 24/7. One big difference with this adaptation: Big Brother may be watching, but we never see him. There are no posters of a man resembling Josef Stalin (a rumored inspiration for Orwell's leader) or Donald Trump or anyone else for that matter. O'Brien makes it clear: Big Brother is us. Everyone is responsible—either passively or aggressively—for the present totalitarian state.

The cast is uniformly excellent, and Sturridge should collect combat pay for his work in the torture scenes. I trust they are fake, but they don't look it—at least they didn't before I started averting my eyes. But Birney stands out. As O'Brien, he epitomizes the banality of evil, and it is frightening. Scarier still, he makes a convincing case for the status quo. His condemnation of the people who let the system exist by "never looking up from their screens" gets the one (albeit nervous) laugh in this otherwise harrowing show. 1984 might as well be titled 2017.